Fire & Retire !

First hand accounts from
the Napoleonic Wars.

1812 - Napoleon I in Russia.
1812 - Napoleon I in Russia
by Vassili Verestchagin.

Prelude to Invasion.

It is, no doubt, from the Dresden Conference that we must date Napoleon's open hostility towards Russia. After his unsuccessful endeavour to secure the hand of the Tsar's sister, it was rumoured in well-informed French Court circles that Napoleon had made up his mind once and for all to humble the pride of Russia.

It was not, however, until the Dresden Conference that Napoleon threw off the mask. He then adopted a distinctly threatening attitude in the face of Alexander's refusal to reconsider his decision and humble himself in the eyes of Europe.

The Russian Emperor firmly refused to submit, and his defiant attitude was the more offensive to Napoleon inasmuch as it was open and undisguised. There was no question of concealing it or of receding from the position already adopted. "The bottle is opened - the wine must be drunk," was Napoleon's own expression.

It was, moreover, at the Dresden Conference that Napoleon attained the zenith of his power. At Dresden he was indeed a king of kings. The Emperor of Austria respectfully and repeatedly assured his august cousin that he might "fully rely upon Austria for the triumph of the common cause;" while the King of Prussia reassured him of his "unswerving fidelity."

The splendour and magnificence of the French Court at the time of the Dresden Conference, says an eyewitness, gave Napoleon the air of some legendary Grand Mogul. As at Tilsit, he showered magnificent presents on all sides. At his levees reigning princes danced attendance for hours in the hope of being honoured with an audience.

This new order of would-be courtiers was so numerous that the Emperor's chamberlains and officials had constantly to give one another warning lest they should jostle a Royal Highness unawares.

Every country sent its contingent. There were no eyes but for Napoleon. The populace gathered in crowds outside the palace, following his every movement, and dogging his progress through the streets, in hourly expectation of some great event.

Never, probably, were such elaborate arrangements made as for this campaign. Besides the usual preparations for a war, engagements were made with tradesmen of all kinds - tin-workers, masons, watchmakers, and other skilled artisans.

There was no word of explanation as to the place in which their services would be required, so that until the opening of the campaign the general public had no inkling of the object of all these preparations. It was even rumoured that Napoleon was about to aid Russia against the Turks.

The abrupt departure of the Russian military agent Tczernicheff from Paris, and the court-martial on certain persons who had treasonably supplied him with various documents, at last revealed the Emperor's plans, and it was then positively stated in the salons that the preparations were directed against Russia.

The authorities, however, refused to confirm these reports, and went so far as to issue an order to the army, forbidding the officers and men to discuss the rumoured campaign.

The French army was at that moment in the most flourishing condition.

It consisted of twelve infantry corps of 20,000 men each, three cavalry corps of the same strength, and with 40,000 men of the Guard, Artillery, Engineers, and Sappers, amounted to 400,000 men, including 300,000 Frenchmen. This enormous force possessed 1200 guns and more than 100,000 ammunition-wagons and caissons.

Such a body of troops, accustomed to victory, proud of its traditions, full of confidence in its officers, and led by a commander with the prestige of twenty years' brilliant success, might well be deemed invincible.

Every subaltern regarded a campaign in Russia as a pleasant six months' outing. The whole army, fully assured of speedy success, looked forward to the war as a means of rapid promotion. All were eager to start. "We are off to Moscow," they cried to their friends, "à bientôt !"

It was said that Prussia would receive from the expected conquests full compensation for her former losses. Napoleon himself suggested this in his proclamation - "At the beginning of July we shall be in St. Petersburg; I shall be avenged on the Emperor Alexander, and the King of Prussia will be Emperor of the North."

There were prophets who declared that "if the Russians do not make their peace in time. Napoleon will divide their European territories into two parts - the Dukedom of Smolensk, and the Dukedom of St. Petersburg. The Emperor Alexander, if Napoleon thinks it worth while to leave him his throne, will reign only in Asia."

The Comte de Narbonne, Napoleon's envoy to Vilna, was obliged to admit that the Emperor Alexander conducted himself with irreproachable dignity. He displayed neither fear nor arrogance.

The answer with which Narbonne returned to his Imperial master at Dresden proved that the Russian Emperor was firmly resolved to offer no other terms than those which his Ambassador at Paris had already communicated. He had nothing to subtract from them, and nothing to add.

An eye-witness describes the impression produced in Dresden, where everybody was eagerly waiting to learn the result of his mission, by the arrival of Comte Narbonne's travel-stained carriage, when he returned with the news that "the Emperor Alexander refused to alter his decision."

"Although," Alexander said, "no one tells me so to my face, I am well aware, and I am not ashamed to own it, that I am not so great a soldier as Napoleon, and that I have no generals who are a match for his. This assurance on my part should, I think, serve as the clearest proof of my sincere desire for the maintenance of peace."

Alexander was extremely indignant at Napoleon's subsequent high-handed proceeding in crossing the frontier without declaring war, for although the Russians were expecting hostilities, there were some, including Rumyantsef and other notables, who regarded it to the last as unlikely, firmly believing that the matter would end in a few threats and a compromise.

Nine years later, when Napoleon was at St. Helena, the Emperor Alexander caused him to ba asked why he had refused the terms brought by Narbonne from Vilna. "Because by the terms of the offer," replied Napoleon, "a month was required before any definitive treaty could be arrived at, and such a delay might have involved the loss of the campaign, of all our stupendous preparations, and of the alliances that had been entered into, and which there was little prospect of renewing."

Napoleon loudly proclaimed that "Fate was leading Russia to her doom," and took upon himself the duty of executing the decree of destiny, by which the Russians, as enemies of European civilization, were to be driven into the wilds of Asia.

Napoleon's own baggage-train consisted of seventy wagons, each drawn by eight horses; twenty carriages, open and closed; forty pack-mules; and two hundred ridinghorses. During his drives from place to place the Emperor was never idle.

When darkness fell, a lamp fixed inside the carriage enabled him to work as comfortably as if he were sitting at home in his own room. Aides-de-camp and orderlies were always within call at the door of his carriage, and a number of riding-horses followed with the body-guard.

In this way Napoleon reached the Niemen on June II/23,I do not know the significance of the "II" in the date. and mounted his horse at two o'clock at night. It is said that as he approached the bank of the river, his horse stumbled and threw him, and that some one cried out, "That's a bad omen; a Roman would have turned back;" but no one could distinguish whether it was the Emperor or one of his suite who uttered the words.

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Researched & Compiled by Way-Mark.

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Updated: 1st August, 2011.
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