François de Chateaubriand
Translated by A. S. Kline © 2005 All Rights Reserved.
This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.
When Bonaparte crossed the Niemen, eighty-five million five hundred thousand souls recognised his rule or that of his family; half the population of Christendom obeyed him; his orders were executed over the space of nineteen degrees latitude and thirty degrees longitude. Never has so gigantic an expedition been seen before, nor will be seen again.
the 22nd of June, at his headquarters at Wilkowiski,
Napoleon declares war: ‘Soldiers, the second Polish War has commenced; the
first ended at Tilsit;
spent a whole day lying down, without strength but without recuperation either:
he could feel something retreating from him. His military columns advanced
At daybreak, instead of Muscovite battalions, or Lithuanians, advancing to meet their liberators, there was only bare sand and empty forest to be seen: ‘Three hundred paces from the river on the highest point the Emperor’s tent was visible. Around it all the hills, slopes and valleys were covered with men and horses.’ (Ségur.)
whole force under Napoleon’s orders amounted to six hundred and eighty thousand
three hundred infantry, and seventy-six thousand eight hundred and fifty
cavalry. In the War of the Succession, Louis XIV had six hundred thousand men
under arms, all French. The regular infantry, under Bonaparte’s immediate
command, was divided into ten corps. These corps were made up of twenty
thousand Italians; eighty thousand men from the Confederation of the
army crosses the
There is a story that Napoleon’s horse stumbled and someone was heard to murmur: ‘It’s a bad omen; a Roman would turn back.’ This is the old tale told of Scipio, William the Conqueror, Edward III, and Malesherbes setting out for the Revolutionary Tribunal.
Three days were needed for the troops to cross; then they fell into line and advanced. Napoleon pressed on; time cried out to him: ‘March! March!’ as Bossuet once proclaimed.
Vilna, Bonaparte received Senator Wibicki, of the Diet of Warsaw: a Russian
parliamentarian, Balashov, presented
himself in turn; he declared that a treaty was still possible, that Alexander
was not the aggressor, and that the French had appeared in
had said to the Russian envoy: ‘Do you think I care about your Polish
Jacobins?’ Madame de Staël records this
last comment, her exalted contacts kept her well-informed: she affirms that a
letter exists written to Monsieur de Romanzov
by one of Bonaparte’s Ministers, which proposed the erasure of the words
asked Balashov how many churches there were in
having been despatched with several unacceptable proposals, the last glimmer of
peace vanished. The bulletins proclaimed: ‘Here then is the Russian Empire, so
formidable from afar! It is a wasteland. It will take Alexander longer to
collect his troops than Napoleon to reach
arriving in Vitebsk, thought for a moment
of calling a halt there. Returning to his headquarters, after seeing Barclay
retreat once more, he flung his sword onto some maps and exclaimed: ‘I am
stopping here! My 1812 campaign is over: that of 1813 will do the rest.’ He
would have been happier if he had kept to this resolution which all his
generals advised. He had invested some pride in receiving fresh peace
proposals: seeing none appear, he grew bored; he was only twenty days from
And those cancers, where did they come from? These inconsequential statements go unnoticed, and are transformed if needs be into proofs of Napoleon’s guileless sincerity.
Bonaparte would have thought it degrading to be caught acknowledging an error. His soldiers complain that they no longer see him except in moments of battle, forever sending them to their deaths, never trying to keep them alive: he is deaf to their complaints. The news of peace between the Russians and Turks surprises him but does not hold him back: he launches himself on Smolensk. The Russian proclamations declared: ‘He (Napoleon) is coming, treachery in his heart but loyalty on his lips; he is coming to chain us to his legions of slaves. Let us carry the cross in our hearts and steel in our hands; let us draw the teeth of this lion; let us overthrow the tyrant who overthrows the world.’
the heights of Smolensk Napoleon met up with the Russian Army, composed of a
hundred and twenty thousand men: ‘I have them!’ he exclaimed. On the 17th of
August, at daybreak, Belliard hurled a
band of Cossacks into the Dnieper; the
curtain of troops having fallen back, the Russian army could be seen on the
refused to quit one of our batteries shattered by the fire from the citadel of
During the night, a fire attracted attention. One of Davout’s non-commissioned officers scaled the wall, and entered the citadel through the smoke; the sound of distant voices reached his ear: pistol in hand he advanced in that direction, and to his great astonishment, ran into a friendly patrol. The Russians had abandoned the town, and Poniatowski’s Poles had occupied it.
we saw the Hetman Platov in
Bonaparte wrote to
Orlando, in his narrow circuit of
chivalry, chased after Angelica;
conquerors of the first rank pursue a nobler sovereign: no rest for them until
they clasp in their arms that divinity
crowned with towers, the bride of Time, daughter of Heaven and mother of the
gods. Obsessed by his own being, Bonaparte reduced everything to the personal;
Napoleon had taken possession of Napoleon; there was no longer anything in him
but self. So far he had only explored famous regions; now he was travelling a
nameless road along which Peter the
Great had scarcely sketched out the future cities of an empire not yet a
hundred years old. If precedents were instructive, Bonaparte might have been concerned
by the memory of Charles XII
who passed through
A succession of battles, offered and refused, brought the French to the field of Borodino. At every bivouac the Emperor discussed the situation with his generals, listening to their arguments while seated on a pine branch or toying with a Russian cannon ball which he rolled about with his foot.
Barclay, the Livonian pastor, become a
general, was the originator of this series of retreats which gave autumn time
to overtake him: an intrigue at Court toppled him. The ageing Kutuzov replaced Barclay, Kutuzov who was
beaten at Austerlitz because his
advice, to avoid battle until the arrival of Prince Charles, was ignored. The Russians saw
Kutuzov as a general of their own, Suvorov’s
pupil, conqueror of the Grand Vizier in 1811, and author of the peace treaty
with the Porte, so necessary to
Reaching the heights of
A great stir could be seen in the Muscovite camp: the troops were under arms; Kutuzov, surrounded by priests and archimandrites and preceded by religious emblems and a holy icon rescued from the ruins of Smolensk was talking to his soldiers about Heaven and the motherland; he called Napoleon the universal despot.
In the midst of battle songs and triumphant choruses mingled with cries of grief, a Christian voice was heard from the French camp also; it could be distinguished from all the rest; it was the sacred hymn rising alone beneath the vaults of the church. The soldier, whose voice calm, yet full of emotion, lingered beyond the others, was the aide-de-camp of the Marshal in command of the Horse-Guards. This aide-de-camp had been involved in every battle of the Russian Campaign; he speaks of Napoleon, as one of his greatest admirers; but he recognised his weaknesses; he corrects false tales, and declares that the errors made were due to the leader’s pride and his officers’ neglect of God. ‘In the Russian camp,’ Lieutenant-Colonel Baudus says, ‘they sanctified that vigil on a day which would be the last for so many brave men……………………………………………………………………..
The spectacle offered to my eyes by the enemy’s piety, as well as the jests it suggested to too many of the officers in our ranks, reminded me that the greatest of our kings, Charlemagne, was also inclined to begin the most dangerous of his enterprises with religious ceremony.
Ah, doubtless, among those errant Christians, a large number were to be found whose sincere belief sanctified their prayers; for if the Russians were defeated at the Moskva, our complete annihilation, which can in no way be considered glorious, since it was the manifest work of Providence, would show several months later that their pleas had only been too favourably heard!’
But where was the Tsar? He happened to say modestly to the fugitive Madame de Staël that he regretted not being a great general. At that moment Monsieur de Bausset, an officer of the Palace, appeared in our bivouacs: come from the tranquil woods of Saint-Cloud, following the dreadful tracks of our army, he arrived on the eve of the funerals by the Moskva; he had been charged with a portrait of the King of Rome, which Marie-Louise had sent to the Emperor. Monsieur Fain and Monsieur de Ségur portray the feeling which seized Napoleon on seeing it; according to General Gourgaud, Bonaparte, having viewed the portrait, exclaimed: ‘Take it away; he is seeing the field of battle too soon.’
The day before the storm was extremely calm: ‘The kind of skill,’ says Monsieur Baudus, ‘which goes into preparing such cruel follies, is somewhat humiliating to human reason when one thinks about it cold-bloodedly at my age; since, in my youth, I found it quite fine.’
Towards evening on the 6th of September, Bonaparte dictated this proclamation; it was not known to most of his remaining troops until after the victory:
‘Soldiers, here is the
battle you so longed for. Victory now depends on you; it is essential to us, it
will bring us wealth and a quick return home. Conduct yourselves as you did at Austerlitz, Friedland, Vitebsk
and Smolensk, and may the most remote
posterity cite your conduct on this day; may they say of you: “He was at that
great battle before the walls of
Bonaparte spent an
anxious night: at one moment believing the enemy was retreating, at another
worrying about his soldiers’ destitute state, and his officers’ weariness. He
knew what was being said all around him: ‘To what end have we been made to
march two thousand miles only to find marsh-water, hunger, and a bivouac among
smoking ruins? Every year the war is worse: fresh conquests force him to seek
out fresh enemies. Soon
In the middle of the
night, Napoleon summoned one of his aides-de-camp; the latter found him with
his head buried in his hands: ‘What is war?’ he asked; ‘a barbaric trade whose
only art consists in being stronger at any given point.’ He complained of the
inconstancy of fortune; he sent for reports on the enemy positions: he was told
that the fires were burning as brightly and in the same numbers; he calmed
down. At five in the morning, Ney sent a
request for the order to attack; Bonaparte went outside and exclaimed: ‘Let us
open the gates of
……On the 6th, at two in the morning, the Emperor rode up and down the enemy’s forward positions; the day was spent in mutual reconnoitring. The enemy held a very well-defended position…
The position appeared good and strong. It would have been easy to manoeuvre and force the enemy to leave; but that would have delayed the action………………………………………………………………………….
On the 7th, at six in the morning, General Comte Sorbier, who had set up the battery on the right with artillery from the Guard’s Reserve, began to fire…………………………………………………………………………….
At seven, Marshal le Duc d’Elchingen started to move forward once more and, under the protection of sixty cannon that General Foucher had positioned opposite the enemy centre the previous evening, advanced towards the centre. A thousand guns vomited death on every side.
At eight, the enemy positions were won, their redoubts taken, and our artillery crowned the summits………………………………………………
The enemy redoubts on the right still held out; General le Comte Morand advanced and took them; but at nine in the morning, attacked on all sides, he could not maintain his position. The enemy, encouraged by this success, advanced their reserve and their remaining troops in order to try their luck. The Russian Imperial Guard was part of the manoeuvre. It attacked our centre on which our right had pivoted. For a moment it looked as though it might take the burning village; Friant’s division fell on it; eighty French cannon first halted and then began to destroy the enemy columns which held out for two solid hours under heavy bombardment, not daring to advance, not wishing to retreat, while renouncing all hope of victory. The King of Naples put an end to their indecision; he ordered the fourth cavalry corps to charge; it penetrated the gaps that our cannon bombardment had made in the serried mass of Russians and theirs squadrons of cuirassiers; they scattered in all directions………………………………………………...
At two in the afternoon, the enemy abandon hope: the battle is over, the gunfire still continues; they beat the drums for a retreat and salute, but not for victory.
Our total losses are estimated at ten thousand men; those of the enemy at forty or fifty thousand. A like battlefield has never been seen. Of every six corpses one was French and five Russians. Forty Russian generals were killed, wounded or taken: General Bagration was wounded.
We have lost Major-General le Comte Montbrun, killed by a cannonball; General le Comte Caulaincourt, who had been sent to replace him, was killed in a similar manner an hour later.
Brigadier-Generals Compère, Plauzonne, Marion, and Huard have been killed; seven or eight Generals have been wounded, most of them lightly. The Prince d’Eckmühl is unharmed. The French troops have covered themselves with glory and have shown their great superiority over the Russians.
Such in a few words is a
sketch of the
The Emperor was never in danger; the Guard, on foot or horseback, has not yielded or lost a single man. The victory was never in doubt. If the enemy, forced from their positions, had not decided to re-take them, our losses would have been greater than theirs; but they have destroyed their army in holding fast from eight till two under fire from our batteries and persisting in re-taking what they had surrendered. That is the reason for their immense losses.’
This calm and reticent
bulletin gives little idea of the
Monsieur de Ségur’s narrative supplies what is missing from Bonaparte’s bulletin: ‘The Emperor rode up and down the field of battle.’ he says. ‘There has never been one with so terrible an aspect. All things conspired: a cloudy sky, a chill rain, a violent wind, houses in ashes, a devastated plain covered with debris and ruins; on the horizon the sad and sombre verdure of the northern trees; soldiers everywhere, wandering among the corpses looking for supplies, even in their dead comrades’ knapsacks; terrible wounds, for the Russian cannonballs are larger than ours; silent bivouacs; no more songs, an end to stories: only a dismal taciturnity.
Around the eagles, the remaining officers and junior officers could be seen, and a few soldiers, scarcely enough to guard the flags. Their uniforms were torn from the fierce fighting, blackened with powder, stained with blood; and yet, in the midst of these scarecrows, this wretchedness, this disaster, they had a proud air, and even, on sight of the Emperor, gave a few victory cries, though sparse and frenzied: since, in that army capable, in those days of analysis, of enthusiasm, each man judged the position of them all…
The Emperor could only judge his victory by the dead. The ground within the redoubts was so strewn with recumbent Frenchmen that it appeared to belong to them more than to those who remained standing. There seemed to more dead conquerors than living ones there.
Amongst the mass of bodies, over which it was necessary to step in order to follow Napoleon, a horse’s hoof touched a wounded man and drew from him a last sign of life and pain. The Emperor, mute till then like his victory, oppressed by the sight of so many victims, cried out, and relieved his feelings in cries of indignation, and by a multitude of attentions which he insisted on this poor wretch being shown. Then he sent the officers following him away, to help those who could be heard crying out on all sides.
Above all they could be found in the deep ravines into which the majority of our casualties had been precipitated, and where several had been dragged to give them more shelter from the enemy and the storm. Some while groaning called out the name of their country or their mother: they were the youngest. The older men waited for death with an impassive or sardonic air, without deigning to plead or complain: others demanded to be killed on the battlefield: but we passed by these wretched men, able to bring them neither the vain mercy of assistance, nor the cruel mercy of despatch.’
Such is Monsieur de Ségur’s tale. Anathema to the victories which are not won in defence of the motherland, and which only serve to feed a conqueror’s vanity!
The Guard, composed of twenty-five thousand elite troops, was not involved in the Battle of Borodino: Bonaparte refused to use them, giving various pretexts. Contrary to custom, he kept away from the firing, and could not follow the manoeuvres with his own eyes. He sat or walked about close to a redoubt taken the previous day: when he was told of the death of one of his generals, he made a gesture of resignation. This display of impassiveness caused some astonishment; Ney exclaimed: ‘What’s he doing behind the army? There, only reverses reach him, not success. Since he no longer wages war on his own behalf, and is no longer a general, since he wants to play the Emperor everywhere, let him return to the Tuileries and leave us to be generals on his behalf.’ Murat swore that on that great day he no longer recognised Napoleon’s genius.
admirers have attributed Napoleon’s torpor to the worsening of the illness from
which, they assure us, he was then suffering; they affirm that he was often
obliged to dismount , and would often remain motionless, his forehead pressed
against a cannon. That may be so: a temporary indisposition may have
contributed at that time to a lessening of his energy; but given that he
regained that energy in his campaign in
Between the Moskva and
On the evening of the
13th of September, Kutuzov had summoned a
council of war: all his generals declared that ‘
Count Rostopchin was the
Governor of Moscow. His vengeance promised to drop from heaven: a huge balloon,
constructed at great expense, was to float above the French army, pick out the
Emperor among his thousands, and fall on his head in a shower of fire and
steel. In trial, the wings of the airship broke; forcing him to renounce his
bombshell from the clouds; but Rostopchin kept the flares. The news of the
‘Come, my friends the Muscovites, let us march too! We’ll gather a hundred thousand men, we’ll take an icon of the Holy Virgin, and a hundred and fifty cannon, and put an end to all this.’
He advised the inhabitants to arm themselves simply with pitchforks, since a Frenchman weighed no more than a sheaf of corn.
We know that Rostopchin
later denied all part in the burning of
The burning of
Where would the nations be, if Bonaparte, from the heights of the Kremlin, had covered the world with his despotism as if with a funeral pall? The rights of the human race are supreme. For myself, if the world were a combustible globe, I would not hesitate to set fire to it if it were a question of freeing my country. Nevertheless, it takes nothing less than the superior interests of human liberty for a Frenchman, his head covered in mourning and his eyes full of tears, to bring himself to speak of a decision which proved fatal to so many Frenchmen.
Count Rostopchin, an educated and spiritual man, has been to Paris: in his writings, his thoughts are hidden beneath a certain buffoonery; he was a sort of civilized Barbarian, an ironic even depraved poet, capable of generous inclinations, while scornful of nations and kings: Gothic churches admit grotesque decorations amidst their grandeur.
The rout of
An omen had momentarily
raised everyone’s spirits: a vulture was caught in the chains which supported
the cross on the principal church;
With the arrival of long convoys of wounded Russians at the city gates, all hope evaporated. Kutuzov had promised Rostopchin that he would defend the city with the ninety-one thousand men left to him: you have read how the council of war obliged him to retreat. Rostopchin remained alone.
Night fell: messengers knocked mysteriously on every door, announcing that all must leave, that Nineveh was doomed. Inflammable material was piled in public buildings and markets, in shops and private houses; fire-fighting equipment was removed. Then Rostopchin ordered the prisons to be opened: from a filthy gang of prisoners a Russian and a Frenchman were brought forward; the Russian, a member of a sect of German Illuminati, was accused of attempting to betray his country and of having translated the French proclamation; his father ran up; the Governor granted him a few moments to bless his son: ‘Me, bless a traitor!’ the old Muscovite cried, and cursed him instead. The prisoner was handed to the people and killed.
‘As for you,’ Rostopchin
said to the Frenchman, ‘you were right to desire your countrymen’s arrival: go
free. Tell your comrades that there was only a single traitor in all of
The other malefactors
who were released, were given, with their freedom, orders to set the city on
fire, when the moment arrived. Rostopchin was the last to leave
on horseback, had joined the vanguard. One height remained to be crossed; it
acclamation ceased; they descended silently towards the city; no deputation
emerged from the gates to present the keys in a silver bowl. All signs of life
had been suspended in that great city.
the city was still standing, Napoleon, marching towards it, cried: ‘So, this is
the famous city! and he gazed:
Murat, advancing as far as the Kremlin, was greeted with howls of fury from the prisoners set free in order to defend their country: he was forced to blast the gates open with cannon.
was taken to the Dorogomilov Gate; he installed himself in one of the first
houses in the suburb, took a ride along the Moskva, and saw no one. He returned
to his quarters and appointed Marshal Mortier
In the bazaar long rows of locked and shuttered shops could be seen. At first the fire was contained; but during the second night it broke out everywhere; star-shells hurled into the air by rockets burst and fell in sheaves of light over the palaces and churches. A fierce northerly drove the sparks before it and scattered flakes of fire over the Kremlin: it contained a powder magazine; an artillery-park had been left under Bonaparte’s very windows. Our soldiers were driven from quarter to quarter by the eruptions from the volcano. Gorgons and Medusas, torch in hand, rushed through the livid crossroads of this inferno; others poked the fires with spears of tarred wood. Bonaparte, in the halls of this new Pergamos, rushed to the windows, crying: ‘What amazing resolution! What people! They are Scythians!’
A rumour spread that the Kremlin was mined: servants discovered they were ill, while the soldiers resigned themselves to their fate. The mouths of the various fires outside grew wider, approached each other, and met: the tower of the Arsenal, like a tall taper, burnt in the midst of a blazing sanctuary. The Kremlin was nothing but a black island against which broke a sea awash with fire. The sky, reflecting the glow, seemed as if traversed by the flickering lights of the aurora borealis.
The third night fell; one could scarcely breathe in the suffocating atmosphere: twice fuses had been attached to the building housing Napoleon. How to escape? The flames had merged blocking the gates of the citadel. After searching around, a postern was found leading to the Moskva. The conqueror and his retinue slipped away through this exit to safety. Around him in the city, arches were collapsing with a roar, and belfries from which showers of molten metal poured, were leaning, breaking and falling. Beams, rafters and roofs, cracking, sparking, and crumbling, plunged into a Phlegethon whose burning waves they sent leaping in a million golden spangles. Bonaparte made his escape over the cold embers of a district already reduced to ashes: he gained Petrovsky, the Tsar’s palace.
Gourgaud, criticising Monsieur Ségur’s work, accuses the Emperor’s
orderly of being in error: indeed, it seems proven, by Monsieur de Baudus’ narrative, he being aide-de-camp to
Marshal Bessières, and who himself acted
as guide to Napoleon, that the latter did not escape by a postern, but left by
the main doorway of the Kremlin. From the shores of
that catastrophe later, Bonaparte further wrote: ‘My evil genius appeared, to
announce my destiny, which I met with on the
at first had admired the Scythian fires as a spectacle that suited his
imaginings; but soon the evil which that catastrophe had worked on him chilled
him and made him revert to his abusive diatribes. Sending Rostopchin’s letter
understood adversity without becoming despondent. ‘Retreat,’ he wrote, ‘when
A style in which the words God, virtue and liberty are found is powerful: it pleases men, reassures and consoles them; how superior it is to those affected phrases, sadly imprinted with pagan locutions, and Turkish fatalism: it was to be, they had to be, fatality has overcome them! sterile phraseology, always idle, even when applied to the greatest of actions.
Irregular looting having started, it was regularized; each regiment fell upon the quarry in turn. Peasants driven from their huts, Cossacks, and enemy deserters, roamed around the French camps and fed on whatever our squads had left behind. Everything that could be carried away was taken; soon, overloaded with their spoils, our soldiers threw them away, on happening to remember that they were fifteen hundred miles from home.
The expeditions they undertook, searching for provisions, produced some pathetic scenes: one French squad brought back a cow; a woman approached them, accompanied by a man carrying a child of a few months old in his arms; they pointed to the cow that had just been taken from them. The mother tore at the wretched clothes covering her breasts, to show she had no milk left; the father made a gesture as if to break the child’s head on a stone. The officer made his men return the cow, and he adds: ‘The effect this scene had on my soldiers was such that, for a long time, not a single word was spoken in the ranks.’
Bonaparte’s dreams had
altered; he announced that he wished to march on
‘We are only fifteen
day’s march from St Petersburg,’ says
Monsieur Fain: ‘Napoleon thinks of falling
back towards that capital.’ Instead of fifteen day’s march, at that time, in
those circumstances, one ought to say two months. General Gourgaud adds that all the information from
But while Bonaparte’s
unbridled imagination toyed with the idea of an expedition to
Napoleon remained convinced that he exercised the same power over Alexander that he had exercised at Tilsit and Erfurt, and yet, on the 21st of October Alexander wrote to Prince Michael Larcanowitz: ‘I learn, to my extreme dissatisfaction, that General Bennigsen has met with the King of Naples………………..All the specifics contained in the orders which were addressed to you by myself should have convinced you that my resolution is unshakeable, and that at this time no proposal by the enemy could commit me to terminating the war, and so weakening the sacred duty of avenging the motherland.’
The Russian generals took advantage of the self-esteem and naivety, of Murat, who commanded the vanguard; continually delighted by the Cossacks’ attentiveness, he borrowed jewels from his officers to give them as presents to his courtiers from the Don; but the Russian generals, far from desiring peace, dreaded it. Despite Alexander’s resolve, they knew their Emperor’s weakness, and feared the persuasiveness of ours. In order to achieve vengeance, it was merely a matter of gaining a month, in order to await the first frost: the Muscovite Christians’ prayers were supplications to heaven to bring on the storms.
General Wilson arrived, in his
capacity as English emissary to the Russian Army; he had already crossed
Bonaparte’s path in
Bonaparte, believing that one reverse step would lesson his prestige and cause the fear of his name to evaporate, could not bring himself to back down: despite the warnings of imminent peril, he remained there, waiting all the while for a reply from St Petersburg; he, who had conducted himself with such contempt, sighed for a few wretched words from the defeated. In the Kremlin he occupied himself with regulations for the Comédie-Française; he spent three evenings completing this majestic work; with his aides he discussed the merit of some new verses received from Paris; those around him admired the great man’s sang-froid, while the wounded from his latest battles were still dying in terrible pain, and while, by delaying a few more days, he condemned to death the hundred thousand men who remained. The servile stupidity of the age tries to pass this pitiful affectation off as the design of an incommensurable spirit.
Bonaparte toured the Kremlin buildings. He descended and then re-ascended the staircase on which Peter the Great had the Strelitz guards murdered; he walked up and down the banquet hall where Peter had the prisoners assembled, lashing out at the head of one of them between each glass, proposing to his guests, princes and ambassadors, to divert themselves in the same way. Men were then broken on the wheel, and women buried alive; they hung two thousand of the Strelitz whose bodies were left dangling from the walls.
Instead of instructions regarding the theatre, Bonaparte would have done better to write to the Senate (Conservateur) the letter which Peter wrote to the Moscow Senate from the banks of the Pruth: ‘I announce to you, that misled by bad advice, and without it being my fault, I find my camp here surrounded by a force four times larger than mine. If I am taken, you are no longer to consider me as your lord and Tsar, nor to take account of any order which may be sent to you in my name, even if you recognise it as being in my own hand. If I perish, you must choose the worthiest of you as my successor.’
A note of Napoleon’s addressed to Cambacérès contained unintelligible orders: there was some deliberation, and though the signature on the note was a lengthened form of a classical name, the writing being recognised as Bonaparte’s, it was decreed that the unintelligible orders be executed.
The Kremlin contains a Double Throne for a pair of
brothers: Napoleon chose not to share his. In one of the rooms a stretcher
could be seen, shattered by a cannonball, on which the wounded Charles XII had been carried at
These requests of the
unfortunate, presented by death to majesty, were not to Napoleon’s taste. He
was occupied with other cares; partly out of a desire for deception, partly
because it was his nature, he planned, as he did on leaving
The fatal moment
approached: Daru raised objections to various
plans sketched out by Bonaparte: ‘What path should we take, then?’ the Emperor
exclaimed. – ‘Remain here; turn
He plunged again into
uncertainty: should he go, or should he stay? He was unsure. Countless
deliberations followed. Finally a skirmish at Vinkovo,
on the 18th of October, persuaded him to leave the ruins of
For thirty-five days, like those fearsome African serpents that sleep when they have dined, he had lost sight of himself: this it would seem was the time needed to alter the fate of such a man. During that period the star of his destiny sank in the sky. At last he awoke, caught between winter and a burned-out capital; he slipped away from ruin: it was too late; a hundred thousand men were condemned to die. Marshal Mortier, commanding the rear-guard, was ordered, on his retreat, to blow up the Kremlin.
himself or wishing to deceive others, wrote a letter to the Duc de Bassano, on the 18th of October, reproduced by Monsieur
Fain: ‘By the end of the first few weeks of
November,’ he writes, ‘I will have brought my troops back to the square bounded
by Smolensk, Mohilov, Minsk
and Vitebsk. I am decided on this
They retreated towards Maloyaroslavets: due to the volume of
baggage and badly-harnessed vehicles, after three days march they were still
only thirty miles from
On the 23rd of October at half-past one in the morning, the earth shook: a hundred and eighty three thousand pounds of gunpowder, placed beneath the Kremlin, tore apart the palace of the Tsars. Mortier, who blew up the Kremlin, was destined to meet Fieschi’s infernal machine. What worlds passed between those two explosions, in time and among men!
After this deafening
roar, a loud cannonade sounded through the silence, from the direction of
Maloyaroslavets: to the same degree that Napoleon had longed to hear this noise
Napoleon stayed that night at Gorodnia, in a humble house where the officers attached to various generals were unable to find shelter. They gathered under Bonaparte’s window; it lacked curtains or shutters; light could be seen escaping, while the officers who remained outside were plunged in darkness. Napoleon was sitting in his little room, his head bowed on his hands; Murat, Berthier, and Bessières stood near him, silent and motionless. He gave no orders, and mounted his horse on the morning of the 25th of October, in order to inspect the Russian army’s positions.
He had barely left when
a cascade of Cossacks swept almost to his feet. The living avalanche had
crossed the Luzh, and had been hidden from sight, at the edge of a wood.
Everyone drew his sword, including the Emperor. If these marauders had been
possessed of greater courage, Bonaparte would have been captured. In the
burning town of
Returning to Borowsk next day, on the 26th, near to Vereia, General Wintzingerode and his aide-de-camp Count
Nariskin were brought before the leader
of our armies: they had been caught entering
Nevertheless, in the
midst of his wild anger, while he was giving Mortier
the order to destroy the Kremlin, he obeyed, at the same moment, his double
nature; he wrote to that same Duke of Treviso in sentimental phrases; aware
that his missives would become known, he urged him with paternal tenderness to
save the hospitals; ‘since that is how,’ he added, ‘I treated Saint-Jean-d’Acre.’ Now, in
Kutuzov however pursued us sluggishly. When Wilson urged the Russian general to act, the general replied: ‘Let the snows come.’ On the 29th of October, they reached the Moskva’s fatal heights: a shout of grief and surprise escaped our army. A vast slaughterhouse was revealed, displaying forty thousand corpses in varying stages of decay. The orderly rows of bodies still seemed to maintain military discipline; detached skeletons in front, on levelled hillocks, indicated the officers and dominated the ranks of dead. Everywhere were broken weapons, shattered drums, fragments of cuirasses and uniforms, and torn standards, scattered among the trunks of trees cut down by cannonballs a few feet from the ground; it was the Grand Redoubt of Borodino.
At the heart of this motionless destruction something was seen moving: a French soldier who had lost both legs made his way through this cemetery which seemed to have disgorged its entrails. The body of a horse brought down by a shell had served to nourish this soldier: he lived there, gnawing away at his cave of flesh; the putrefying flesh of the dead nearby served him in place of bandages to dress his wounds and ointment to soothe his stumps. The terrifying remorse that glory brings dragged itself towards Napoleon: Napoleon did not linger.
The silence of the soldiers, hurrying away from cold, hunger and the enemy, was profound; they thought they might soon resemble those comrades whose remains they could see. Amongst the remnant nothing could be heard but heaving breath and the involuntary tremor of noise from battalions in retreat.
Further on was the Abbey of Kotloskoy which had been turned into a hospital; all medical assistance was lacking: there was only enough life left there to witness death. Bonaparte, reaching the place, burnt the wood of his shattered wagons. When the army took to the road again, those in mortal agony rose in order to reach the threshold of their last sanctuary, allowing themselves to collapse on the roadway, holding out their failing arms to their comrades who were departing: they seemed at the same time to entreat them and seek to delay them.
At every instant the
sound of explosions rang out from the ammunition boxes they had been forced to
abandon. The camp-followers flung the dying into the ditches. The Russian
prisoners, who were being escorted by foreigners in the French service, were
dispatched by their guards: executed in a regular manner, their brains were
spilled from their skulls. Bonaparte had led all
Indifferent to his
soldiers’ miseries, Bonaparte was only concerned with his own interests: in
camp, his conversation turned to those ministers who had sold themselves, he
said, to the English, ministers who had fomented this war; unwilling to confess
that this war was his responsibility alone. The Duke of Vicenza who persisted in bringing
trouble upon himself by his noble conduct, indulged in an outburst, faced with
the flattery prevalent in their bivouac. He shouted: ‘What atrocious cruelty!
So this is the civilisation we have brought
Passing through Gjatsk, Napoleon pressed forward to Viasma; he carried on beyond, not having met with the enemy he feared he might encounter there. On the 3rd of November he reached Slavkovo: there he learnt that a battle had been fought at Viasma against Miloradovich’s troops, fatal to us: our soldiers, our officers, wounded, arms in slings, heads swathed in bandages, in a miracle of valour, threw themselves at the enemy cannon.
These successive actions
in familiar places, these layers of dead upon dead, these battles echoed by
other battles, would have doubly immortalised these fatal fields, if oblivion
had not swiftly cloaked our dust. Who thinks of those countrymen left behind in
It was galling, after each day’s march, to be obliged, at some deserted halt, to take the precautions suited to a strong, well-equipped host, to post sentries; occupy key positions, and station pickets. During the sixteen hour nights, battered by gusts from the north, our troops did not know where to sit or lie down; the trees chopped down with all their alabaster coating, refused to catch fire; to melt a little snow was as much as they could manage, and then mix a spoonful of rye-flour into it. They were no sooner stretched out on the frozen ground than Cossack howls echoed through the woods; the enemy’s light artillery rumbled; our soldiers’ fast was saluted like a banquet at which kings sit down to dine; cannon-balls rolled among the famished guests like loaves of iron. At dawn, which was barely followed by daybreak, the beat of a frost-coated drum, or a hoarse note from a trumpet could be heard: nothing could have been sadder than this mournful reveille, calling to arms warriors whom it could no longer rouse. The growing light revealed circles of infantrymen dead and frozen around extinguished fires.
A few survivors
remained; they advanced, towards unknown horizons which, ever-receding,
vanished into the fog at every step. Under a shivering sky, as if weary of last
night’s storms, our thinning ranks crossed region after region, forest on
forest, in which an Ocean seemed to have left its foam among the dishevelled
branches of the birch-trees. Among these woods there was not even a sign of
that sad little bird of winter who sings, like me, among the leafless bushes.
If I suddenly find myself again, by analogy, in the presence of former days, oh
my comrades (soldiers are all brothers), your sufferings too recall my youth, when,
retreating in advance of your track, I, so wretched and abandoned, journeyed
over the heath-land of the
The Russian Grand Army followed ours: the latter was organised in several divisions sub-divided into columns: Prince Eugène commanded the vanguard, Napoleon the centre, Marshal Ney the rear-guard. Hindered by various obstacles and skirmishes, these corps failed to keep a distance between them: sometimes they overtook one another; sometimes they marched on a parallel course, often without seeing each other or being able to communicate, through lack of cavalry. The Tartars, riding small ponies whose manes swept the ground, gave our soldiers harassed by these gadflies of the snow no rest, day or night. The landscape was changing: where a river had been visible, one found a torrent suspended by bonds of ice from the steep sides of its ravine. ‘In a single night,’ Bonaparte writes (Records of St Helena), ‘we lost thirty thousand horses: we were forced to abandon almost all the artillery, still five hundred pieces strong; we could take neither munitions nor provisions. For lack of horses, we could not carry out any reconnaissance, nor send cavalry forward to reconnoitre the route. The soldiers lost their courage and their wits, and fell, in the confusion. The slightest set-back alarmed them. Four or five men were enough to fill a whole battalion with dread. Instead of keeping together, they wandered off separately seeking the nearest fire. Those who were sent ahead, as scouts, abandoned their task, and went to some house, in order to find the means to warm themselves. They spread out on all sides, estranged from their corps, and easily fell prey to the enemy. Others fell asleep, lying on the ground: a little blood flowed from their nostrils, and they died while sleeping. Thousands of soldiers perished. The Poles saved some of their horses, and a small amount of artillery; but the French and the soldiers of other nations were not the same men. The cavalry suffered most particularly. Of forty thousand men I do not believe three thousand were allowed to escape.’
And you, who recounted this under the glittering sun of another hemisphere, were you merely a witness to all this wretchedness?
On that very day (the 6th of November) when the thermometer fell so low, the first courier seen for many a long day arrived like a lost screech-owl: he carried evil tidings of Malet’s conspiracy. This conspiracy revealed something profound about Napoleon’s fortunes. According to General Gourgaud, what made the most impression on the Emperor was the over-abundant proof ‘that monarchical principles as applied to his monarchy had flung out such shallow roots that the great functionaries, at the news of the Emperor’s death, had already forgotten that, the sovereign being dead, there was another left to succeed him.’
Bonaparte learned of the Paris incident in the midst of the wilderness, among the ruins of an all but vanished army, whose blood the snow drank; Napoleon’s rule rooted in force was annihilated in Russia along with his force, while a single man sufficed to cast it in doubt in the capital: without religion, justice, and liberty, there is no rule.
At almost the very
moment that Bonaparte learned of what had happened in
When Ney’s aide-de-camp tried to go into the specific
grievances, Bonaparte interrupted him: ‘Colonel, I did not ask you for
details.’ – This expedition to
On the 9th of November, they finally reached Smolensk. An order from Bonaparte forbade anyone entering prior to the sentry-posts being occupied by the Imperial Guard. The soldiers outside gathered at the foot of the walls; the soldiers inside held the gates closed. The air was rent by the imprecations of the excluded and desperate, dressed in dirty Cossack smocks, patched greatcoats, ragged cloaks and uniforms, blankets and horsecloths, their heads covered by caps, knotted handkerchiefs, battered shakos, and twisted and dented helmets; all this spattered with blood and snow, riddled with bullets or slashed by sabre-cuts. With haggard, drawn faces, and sombre glittering eyes, they gnashed their teeth and gazed up at the ramparts, with the air of those mutilated prisoners, who, under Louis the Fat, carried their amputated left hand in their right: they might have been taken for frenzied mourners or demented patients escaped from the madhouse. The Young and Old Guards arrived; they entered a city ravaged by fire on our previous visit. Shouts rose, aimed at the privileged band: ‘Will the army never have aught but their leavings?’ The famished cohorts ran wildly towards the shops as if in spectral insurrection; they were driven off and began fighting: the dead were left in the streets, the women and children, and the dying, in the carts. The air stank with the corruption of a multitude of decomposed corpses; some soldiers were touched with imbecility or madness; some with hair tangled or on end, blaspheming or shaking with crazed laughter, fell dead. Bonaparte vented his anger on a wretched supplier not a single of whose orders had been fulfilled.
This army of a hundred thousand men, reduced to thirty thousand, was accompanied by a band of fifty thousand camp-followers: there were only eighteen hundred mounted cavalry left. Napoleon gave their command to Monsieur de Latour-Mauborg. This officer, leading the cuirassiers in the attack on the Great Redoubt at Borodino had his head split open by sabre blows; later he lost a leg at Wachau. Seeing his orderly weeping, he said to him: ‘What are you moaning about? You’ll only have one boot to polish now.’ This general, remaining loyal to the unfortunate, has become tutor to Henri V during the first years of the young prince’s exile: I raise my hat when I pass him, as if I were passing honour incarnate.
They stayed in strength
The remainder of our
battalions diminished from day to day. Kutuzov,
told of our misery, barely stirred: ‘Leave your headquarters for a moment, Wilson exclaimed, ‘climb the
heights; and you will see that Napoleon’s final moment has arrived.
It was true; but it
would only have been Bonaparte who would have been stricken, and God wanted to
set his seal more heavily on
Kutuzov replied: ‘I am
going to rest my soldiers for three days; I would be ashamed, I would halt too,
if they were short of bread for a single instant. I am escorting the French
army as my prisoner; I punish them whenever they want to stop, or stray from
the primary route. The outcome of Napoleon’s destiny is irrevocably set: it is
in the marshes of the
Bonaparte had spoken of old Kutuzov with that insulting disdain of which he was so prodigal: old Kutuzov in turn traded him contempt for contempt.
Kutuzov’s army was more impatient than its leader; the Cossacks themselves shouted: ‘Will you let these skeletons escape from their tomb?’
Meanwhile there was no sign of the fourth corps which ought to have left Smolensk on the 15th, and rejoined Napoleon on the 16th at Krasnoy; communications were cut; Prince Eugène, who led the retreat, tried in vain to re-establish them: all he could do, was to deflect the Russians and achieve a union with the Guard below Krasnoy, but still Marshals Davout and Ney did not appear.
Then, suddenly, Napoleon
found his genius once more: he left Krasnoy on the 17th, baton in hand, at the
head of his Guard, now reduced to thirteen thousand men, in order to confront
his innumerable enemies, open the road to
Kutuzov, on account of
this encounter at Krasnoy, was honoured in
After this vain effort,
Napoleon re-crossed the Dnieper on the
19th of November 1812 and made camp at Orcha:
there he burnt the papers he been carrying for the purpose of writing his
biography during the tedious days of winter, if an intact Moscow had permitted
him to remain there. He found himself compelled to have the enormous cross of
At Orcha there was great anxiety: despite Napoleon’s attempt to rescue Marshal Ney, he was still missing. News of him was at last received at Baranni: Eugène had managed to rejoin him. General Gourgaud tells of the pleasure Napoleon experienced at this, though the bulletins and the narratives of the Emperor’s friends continue to express jealous reservations concerning all events in which he was not directly involved. The army’s joy was promptly stifled; it passed from peril to peril. Bonaparte went from Kokhanov to Tolozcim, where an aide-de-camp told him of the loss of the bridgehead at Borisov, captured from General Dabrowski by the Army of Moldavia. The Army of Moldavia, in turn taken by surprise by the Duke of Reggio in Borisov, withdrew beyond the Berezina having destroyed the bridge. Chichagov thus found himself facing us, on the far bank of the river.
General Corbineau, commanding a brigade of our
light cavalry, given information by a peasant, had discovered the ford of
Veselovo below Borisov. At the news, Napoleon, on the evening of the 24th of
November, sent Éblé and Chasseloup from Bobre with the
pontoneers and sappers: they arrived at Studianka,
Two bridges were built:
an army of forty thousand Russians were camped on the opposite shore. Imagine
the surprise of the French, when at daybreak they saw the river-bank deserted
and the rear-guard of Chaplits’ division
in full retreat! They could not believe their eyes. A single cannonball, the
heat from a Cossack’s pipe, would have sufficed to shatter or set fire to
Éblé’s frail pontoons. Someone ran to alert Bonaparte; he rose in haste, went
out, looked, and cried out: ‘I have deceived the Admiral!’ The exclamation was
natural; the Russians failed to finish things and committed a mistake which may
have prolonged the war by three years; but their leader had not been deceived.
Admiral Chichagov was well aware; it was simply the casual nature of his
character: though intelligent and spirited, he liked his comforts; he always
feared the cold, stayed in the warmth, and thought he would have plenty of time
to exterminate the French when he was thoroughly heated; he yielded to his
temperament. Now retired to
‘The devotion of the
pontoneers, directed by Éblé,’ says Chambray, ‘will lived as long as the memory
of the passage of the
‘Disorder reigned among the French,’ Monsieur de Ségur remarks in turn, ‘and materials were lacking for the two bridges; twice, on the nights of the 26th and 27th, that for vehicles was damaged, and the crossing was delayed for several hours: it broke for a third time on the 27th, towards four in the afternoon. On the other hand, the idlers scattered through the woods and surrounding villages had failed to take advantage on the first night, and on the 27th, when daylight returned, they all presented themselves at the same time to cross the bridges.
This was above all the
moment when the Guard, on whom they modelled themselves, gave way. Its
departure acted as a signal: they ran from all sides; they piled up on the
river bank. In an instant one saw a dense mass of horses, carts and men, huge
and confused, besieging the narrow entryway to the bridges which it
overwhelmed. Those in front, urged on by those who followed, driven back by the
Guards and the pontoneers, or halted by the presence of the river, were
crushed, trodden underfoot, or precipitated onto the ice carried by the
The immense multitude, crammed willy-nilly onto the bank with the horses and carts, formed an appalling obstacle. Towards the first enemy cannonballs fell into the midst of this chaos: it acted as the signal for universal despair.
Many of those who were first squeezed out of this crowd of desperate men, failing to reach the bridge, chose to clamber along its sides; but most were driven back into the river. It was there that one saw women, amongst the chunks of ice, their children in their arms, raising them up as they sank; already submerged their rigid arms still held them aloft.
In the midst of this terrible confusion, the artillery bridge caved in and broke. The column committed to this narrow passage wished in vain to turn back. The wave of men following, ignorant of this disaster, not understanding the shouts of those in front, pushed past them, and drove them into the gulf, into which they were precipitated in their turn.
All then turned towards the other bridge. A multitude of large wagons, heavy carts and artillery pieces flowed in from every side. Urged on by their drivers, and quickly out of control on the unyielding and uneven slope, in the midst of this mass of men, they crushed the wretches taken by surprise between them; then crashing together, the majority overturned violently, stunning those around them in their fall. Then whole ranks of distraught men, pushed up against these obstacles, were obstructed, fell, and were crushed by masses of other unfortunates who followed them without cease.
These waves of pitiful creatures thus broke one upon another; nothing could be heard but screams of pain and rage. In that fearful confusion, crushed and stifled, men struggled beneath the feet of their comrades, clutching at them tooth and nail. The latter thrust them off pitilessly like enemies. Amidst the fearful noise of this furious hurricane, of cannon fire, the howling storm, the whistle of bullets, exploding shells, shouts, groans, appalling oaths, this ragged crowd could no longer hear the cries of the victims it swallowed.’
The other testimonies are in accord with Monsieur de Ségur’s description: as evidence and in summary, I will only cite this passage from the Mémoires de Vaudoncourt:
‘The vast plain before Veselovo offers, this evening, a spectacle whose horror is difficult to convey. It is covered with wagons and carts, most of them overturned on one another and shattered. It is covered with the corpses of civilians, among whom can be seen all too many women and children drawn along in the wake of the army to Moscow, or fleeing that city to follow their compatriots, and whom death has taken in different ways. The fate of these wretches, caught in the confusion of two armies, was to be crushed by the cart-wheels or under the horses’ feet; struck by bullets or by cannonballs from both sides; drowned in trying to cross the bridges with the troops, or stripped by the enemy soldiers and thrown naked into the snow, where the cold soon ended their sufferings.’
What groans did Bonaparte utter at this same catastrophe, at this painful event, one of the most momentous in history; at this disaster which surpassed those of Cambyses’ army? What cry was wrested from his soul? These four words in his bulletin: ‘During the 26th and 27th the army crossed over.’ You have just seen how they did so! Napoleon was not even moved by the sight of those women lifting their infants above the waves in their arms. That other great man, who ruled over a world in the name of France, Charlemagne, a crude barbarian apparently, sang and wept (being also a poet) over a child swallowed by the Ebro while playing on the ice:
‘Trux puer adstricto glacie dum ludit in Hebro.’
The Duke of Belluno was tasked with defending the
crossing. He had left General Partouneaux
behind him, who was forced to surrender. The Duke of Reggio, wounded afresh, was replaced in
command by Marshal Ney. The marshes of Gaina
were crossed: the least foresight on the part of the Russians would have
rendered the paths impassable. At Malodeczno,
on the 3rd of December, all the couriers were found who had been halted there
for three weeks. It was there that Napoleon considered abandoning the flag,
‘Can I remain,’ he said, ‘at the head of a rout?’ At Smorgoni, the King of Naples and Prince Eugène urged him to return to
At Smorgoni, the Emperor
wrote his twenty-ninth Bulletin. On the 5th of December he climbed into a
sledge with Monsieur de Caulaincourt:
it was ten at night. He crossed
At Vilna they encountered only Jews who left the
enemy to the sicknesses they had first incurred themselves in their avarice. A
final defeat crushed the remaining French, on the hill of Ponary. At last they reached the Niemen: the three bridges over which our
troops had filed, no longer existed; a single bridge, the work of the enemy,
spanned the frozen waters. Of the five hundred thousand men, and countless
guns, that in the month of June, had crossed the river, only a thousand
regulars, a few cannon, and thirty thousand wretches covered with wounds were
seen to re-cross it at Kowno. No more music,
mo more songs of victory; blue in the face, the throng, whose frozen eyelashes
held their eyelids apart, marched in silence onto the bridge or crawled from
floe to floe to the Polish shore. Arriving in huts heated by stoves, the poor
wretches expired: their lives melting away with the snow in which they were enveloped.
General Gourgaud states that a hundred
and twenty-seven thousand men re-passed the
Murat, reaching Gumbinnen, called his officers together and
said: ‘It is no longer possible to serve a madman; there is no longer any merit
in his cause; there is not a Prince of Europe who believes in his words or his
treaties any more.’ From there he went to Poznan,
During the whole of that campaign Bonaparte was inferior to his generals, and particularly Marshal Ney. The excuses given for Bonaparte’s flight are inadmissible: the proof is there, for his departure, which was supposed to save everything, saved nothing. His leaving, far from repairing the damage, added to it and hastened the dissolution of the Rhine Federation.
The twenty-ninth and
last bulletin of the Grand Army, dated from Malodeczno
on the 3rd of December 1812, which arrived in Paris on the 18th, only preceded
Napoleon by two days: it astonished France, however far it may have been from the
frank expression it has been praised for; striking contradictions were noted in
it and failed to hide the truth which emerged throughout. At
‘The army,’ he says in
the bulletin of
In all these manoeuvres, the Emperor always marched in the midst of his Guard, the cavalry being commanded by a Marshal, the Duke of Istria, and the infantry by the Duke of Dantzig. His Majesty was satisfied with the fine spirit shown by his Guard; it has always been prepared to take itself to wherever circumstances required; but the circumstances were always such that its mere presence sufficed, and in fact it did not have to be employed.
Our cavalry was so lacking in mounts, that it was necessary to gather together the officers who still had a horse, in order to form four companies of five hundred men each. The generals carried out the function of captains, and colonels those of subalterns. This dedicated squadron, commanded by General Grouchy, and under the orders of the King of Naples, did not lose sight of the Emperor at any time. His Majesty’s health has never been better.’
What a tale of
victories! Bonaparte had once asked the
Directors: ‘What have you done to those hundred thousand Frenchmen all my
companions in glory? They are dead!’
After the loss of those
hundred thousand Republican soldiers whom Napoleon mourned, the country at
least was saved: the final results of the Russian Campaign led to the invasion
Bonaparte had been constantly guarded by a dedicated squadron which did not lose sight of him at any time; compensation for the three hundred thousand lives lost: but why had nature not tempered them as finely? They should have retained their wonted ways. Could that living cannon-fodder merit its movements being as religiously looked after as those of His Majesty?
The bulletin concludes, as do several others, with those words: ‘The health of His Majesty has never been better.’
Families, dry your tears: Napoleon is feeling fine.
Following this account,
can be read this official note in the journals: ‘This is a historic narrative
of the first order; Xenephon and Caesar wrote thus, the one in his Retreat of the Ten Thousand, the other
in his Commentaries.’ What a ludicrous
academic comparison! But, leaving aside the unpaid literary advertising, is one
to take satisfaction in the fact that the appalling calamites Napoleon caused
furnished the occasion to display his talents as a writer! Nero set fire to
The Senate (Conservateur) rushes forward: ‘The Senate,’ says Lacépède, ‘hastens to the foot of the throne of Your Royal and Imperial Majesty to do homage, in congratulation for the happy arrival of Your Majesty amongst his people. The Senate, the highest council of the Emperor, and whose authority exists only while the monarch requires it and renders it in effect, is established for the preservation of this monarchy and the heirs to your throne, of our fourth dynasty. France and posterity will find it, in all circumstances, loyal to that sacred duty, and all its members will be forever ready to die for the defence of this palladium of national safety and prosperity.’ The members of the Senate have since proven it marvellously by decreeing Napoleon’s deposition!
The Emperor replies: ‘Senators, what you have said is most agreeable to me. I have at heart the POWER AND GLORY of France; but our first thoughts are FOR ALL that might perpetuate internal peace…for THIS THRONE with which FROM NOW ON is linked the destiny of our country…I have asked Providence for a CERTAIN NUMBER of years…I have considered what has been achieved at different epochs; I will continue to think of this.’
The natural historian of reptiles, by daring to congratulate Napoleon publicly on his good fortune, is however frightened of his own courage; he has a fear of existing; he needs to say that the authority of the Senate only exists while the monarch requires it and renders it in effect. So great is the fear of an independent Senate!
Faults which only lead to the loss of a battle, or a province, allow excuses to be made in arcane words, whose explanation is left to the future; but faults which overthrow a society, and subject a nation’s freedom to the yoke, are not erased by a humbling of pride.
After so many disasters and heroic events, it is terrible in the end to have no more to choose between on reading the Senate’s words than horror or contempt.
End of Book XXI
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