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Napoleon's Mistakes in 1808-12

In France, Napoleon had created a police state. He had spies looking for subversion and he tried to control as much as he could. Having reduced the number of newspapers in Paris to a few sycophants he had violated the freedom of the press expressed in his Article 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

What Napoleon should have feared was his own mistakes, and one of his big mistakes – self-admitted in hindsight toward the end of his life – was in the making. In March 1808, Napoleon intervened in a quarrel between Spain's King Charles IV and his son Ferdinand. Napoleon took over Spain, making Charles and Ferdinand prisoners in a comfortable setting, but prisoners nevertheless, and in June he moved his brother Joseph from the Kingdom of Naples to the throne in Spain. It was more of Napoleon's desire to control for the sake of his war against the British. Spaniards resented the presence of French troops and Napoleon's interventions. An unusually barbarous war began between French authority in Spain and the Spanish, with Napoleon as usual caring little about hearts and minds. French troops were living off the land and taking by force what they needed, as Napoleon expected them to. According to reports they were looting and raping with gusto, and profaning churches. By firing squad and hanging the French executed hundreds of Spaniards thought to be resisting French power.

Napoleon's moves in Spain had repercussions in Latin America. With Charles IV and his son Ferdinand held by the French, the prestige of Spanish authority there declined. Armed uprisings occurred from Mexico to Argentina. And without Spain in control there, the British would be able to do more business in Latin America, helping Britain against Napoleon's economic blockade.

Spanish resistance encouraged the Portuguese, and in August 1808, resistance to the French spread to Portugal. That month the British landed a force of 13,000 there. Together with a rebel force of Portuguese they defeated a French force sent against them.

In October, British troops entered Spain. The French were unable to control Spain's coastline, and the British could make surprise raids against the French and give added support to Spain's guerrilla forces.

With Napoleon's Grand Army bogged down in Spain, Austria was encouraged to make war again against Napoleon. Austrians were eager to rehabilitate their reputations, as were Prussians. Both Prussia and Austria were meeting secretly with the British, but for now it was the Austrians who would try again on the field of battle.

In early April 1809, an Austrian army pushed into Bavaria, and Napoleon arrived with a counter force. It was less than the force that had defeated the Austrians at Austerlitz. Napoleon was now fighting a two front war, and half of his force against the Austrians were non-French and more like the mercenary dregs of society that had fought for kings before the French Revolution. In May the Austrians defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Aspern-Essling near Vienna. Napoleon pulled back. He had lost his reputation for invincibility, but the Austrians failed to follow up on their victory. Napoleon was resilient and in July was able to organize an attack and the defeat the Austrians at the Battle of Wagram. In October the Austrians signed yet another treaty, promising peace and amity forever. The Austrians ceded the portion of Poland that it had been ruling to the independent Duchy of Poland. They gave up territory to Bavaria and gave control of the eastern shoreline of the Adriatic Sea to France.

Sitzkrieg, Failed Blockade, and Failed Offensive to Moscow

In 1810, Napoleon had a new eighteen-year-old wife, Marie-Louise, having annulled his marriage to Josephine, age forty-six, who had failed to give him children. Marie Louise was of the same royal Austrian family as the late Marie-Antoinette, and it appeared to some in France as an abandonment of the French Revolution.

The war continued without battles. The British were trying to cut France's maritime trade and Napoleon was still trying to block British trade from the continent – his strategy called the Continental System. But Britain's exports had reached an all-time high in 1809: 50.3 million British pounds compared to 9 million in 1802. note28

Britain's merchant fleet had grown to more than 17,000 ships. Tsar Alexander of Russia had denied Napoleon request to have French soldiers monitor Russia's port cities to prevent smuggling. And elsewhere along the continent's shores smuggling was taking place. Smugglers could get a good price for goods from Britain – prices made high by the illegality. Smuggling was one of the few ways that someone could get rich. Thousands of officials were deployed to check the illegal flow of British goods into the continent, but to no avail. And even Napoleon allowed some trading with Britain, to offset damage that the boycott was doing to France's economy. But he cracked down as hard as he could on other nationalities caught trading with the British.

Napoleon's Empire

Napoleon's Empire in 1811. Satellite areas are colored light blue. (From Wikipedia)

The crackdown included annexations. Napoleon added to his previous annexations. He annexed what had been the Dutch Republic. He annexed the cities of Hamburg and Bremen. He annexed the Republic of Valais in what today is southern Switzerland, and in January 1811 he annexed the Kingdom of Westphalia, the Grand Duchy of Berg and the Duchy of Oldenburg. And the annexation of Oldenburg annoyed Tsar Alexander, whose brother-in-law had been an heir to the throne there. The suspension of trade with Britain was hurting Russian exports and economy, and Tsar Alexander issued a decree taking Russia out of the Napoleon's Continental System.

Alexander was annoyed not only by Napoleon's annexation of Oldenburg; he was annoyed by Napoleon's reluctance to approve of his expansion against the Ottomans to Constantinople – Napoleon fearing that this would make Russia too great of a Mediterranean power. Alexander was annoyed also by Napoleon's policy toward the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and his friendship with Polish nationalists. Alexander was unhappy about one of Napoleon's former generals, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, having become king of Russia's traditional enemy, Sweden. And Tsar Alexander was surrounded by many who intensely disliked Napoleon.

In early 1811, Napoleon was warned that the tsar was planning a pre-emptive strike against him. At the end of February, he wrote a letter warning the tsar against a rapprochement with Britain. Some around Napoleon spoke of the mistake that Charles XII of Sweden had made in the early 1700s by fighting the Russians on their soil. But Napoleon was intent on destroying British hopes of an alliance with Russia. Napoleon worried that if Russia were allowed to flout his boycott of Britain, others would follow its example. Napoleon reasoned that by defeating Russia he could create an enlarged Poland friendly to France that would be a shield for Western Europe against the East. Napoleon, moreover, was a gambler, and like a bad gambler he was ready to assume that luck would be on his side, or assume that he was an exception, rather than weigh the details of actual probabilities. Like a bad gambler, Napoleon wanted action above all else. He preferred action and drama to home-life comforts and addressing domestic issues. He said he cared little if his home at Tuileries burned down. And Napoleon was a dreamer. He was thinking that if Russia were defeated, from there he and his allies could go as far as the Ganges Valley, a farther reach than that of Alexander the Great.

In late December 1811, Napoleon began organizing his invasion of Russia. In June 1812, his army gathered along the Vistula River – while he still had 224,000 men in Spain and troops occupying areas elsewhere in Europe. His invasion force reached 600,000, an army of twelve languages and many nationalities, about one-third French. It included Austrian and Prussian units that were unenthusiastic participants, Austria and Prussia having given them to Napoleon under duress. His army had a supply of rations that was to last fifty days, with horses pulling carts of supplies and artillery accompanied by herds of cattle. Napoleon allowed officers to bring along luxuries and servants – more to carry and more mouths to feed. And, taking a cue from their officers, common soldiers brought along friends otherwise known as camp followers.

After the march toward Moscow began, Napoleon's troops found the roads were bad. Supply wagons failed to keep up. After the last of the cattle were slaughtered nothing was left to feed upon. The Russians were leaving behind little but scorched earth. Hunger, dysentery, diphtheria and typhus killed 60,000 of Napoleon's troops before a shot was fired against the Russians. Horses with nothing substantial to graze upon died by the thousands. Napoleon was losing from 5,000 to 6,000 men a day through sickness or desertion.

On July 29, Napoleon and his army staggered into Vitebsk, after only a minor skirmish between his troops and a Russian rear guard. Vitebsk was a ghost town about 300 miles (482 km) short of Moscow. Napoleon was advised that he would soon have no cavalry left. He held a war council, and his three top-ranking subordinates urged a halt to the campaign. Napoleon agreed, saying that they were not going to repeat the folly of Charles XII of Sweden. By the following day he changed his mind. He didn't want to admit folly or show weakness. He accused his top subordinates of being too soft and pampered. He was eager to meet the Russians and Tsar Alexander in battle, and he believed that such battle would come either at Smolensk 80 miles up road or at Moscow – places he believed that Alexander would not be willing to abandon.

Napoleon and his army reached Smolensk in mid-August. There, after three days of hard fighting, his troops entered the city, finding smoking ruin and corpses. The Russian army had pulled back again. Napoleon reminded an unhappy subordinate of the words of a Roman emperor who said that the corpse of an enemy always smelled good.

Napoleon now thought that the tsar would surely fight to hold Moscow. On September 5 Napoleon and his army reached the Moscow River, about 120 miles short of Moscow the city. Near there, at Borodino, his army faced 640 Russian cannons, against Napoleon's 587. By now, Napoleon was down to 130,000 men – less than a third of those who had crossed the Niemen River with him back on June 23. Napoleon chose a frontal assault against the Russians – a tactic he had always been reluctant to employ – and the worst day of fighting yet known to humankind commenced. It was a one-day battle in which the Russians lost 44,000 dead and wounded and Napoleon lost 35,000. Napoleon's army might have been better trained in marksmanship, but they had been fought to a standstill, and on the night of September 7 the Russian army slipped away, undefeated despite its heavy losses.

Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow

Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow
(painted by Adolphe Northen).
Click to enlarge.

Seven days of marching brought Napoleon to the city of Moscow. The day after he and his troops entered the city, fire erupted, and it went unchecked for three days. His troops went on a spree of looting, rescuing goods from the fire. Napoleon took up residence in the Kremlin. He waited for Alexander to send a message begging for peace negotiations. Days passed and no such message arrived. Staying in Moscow was winning Napoleon nothing.

Napoleon's supply and communications lines were beginning to be attacked by peasant guerrillas fighting for loot and revenge. Knowing that their capture meant a terrible death, demoralization set in among troops defending Napoleon's supply line. Napoleon tried passing the time reading novels but he could not concentrate on them. He ordered the manufacture of winter gear, but his order was not feasible.

After a little more than a month of dallying in Moscow, and closer to winter, Napoleon ordered a return to the Niemen river. He looked forward to rejoining 37,000 men and supplies that he believed he had in Smolensk. On October 20, the day after his retreat began, he wrote a coded letter that was sent to France's interior ministry. It read, "My cavalry is in tatters, many horses are dying. At three o'clock in the morning, on the 22nd I am going to blow up the Kremlin." It didn't happen.

Napoleon's retreat was burdened from his allowing his troops to carry their loot with them from Moscow, proofs, he said, of their victory. They had horse fodder for less than a week. Rather than take a south-western route, which was clear and unopposed, they went over devastated terrain, back across the stinking battlefield at Borodino, where vultures and wolves were still feeding on the thousands of corpses that lay about. His men were abandoning their booty and under increasing attack. Their morale was gone. Men were eating flesh cut from some who had fallen and died. Napoleon reached Smolensk on November 9 and found stocks of food there to be lower than expected. Napoleon was concerned about a coup against him in Paris, and he feared a Russian encirclement. He and a vanguard left Smolensk ahead of a fifty-mile column of starving soldiers and camp followers. Winter had now set in. Horses were perishing and being eaten, and people in his column were dying from the cold – while the extreme weather was saving him from the Russians.

On December 5, at Smorgoni (around 200 kilometers west of Smolensk and 120 kilometers short of the Niemen River in what is now Poland), Napoleon and some of his top subordinates left his vanguard and in a coach raced toward Paris.

It is said that only 30,000 of Napoleon's invading force of 600,000 returned to their homes.


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