Another straightforward history blog this week. It's about Napoleon, as posts about l'Empereur seem particularly popular.
We all know that Napoleon finally lost his empire at Waterloo. What people often forget was that this was the second time he had lost it.
Napoleon was initially defeated in 1814. His series of brilliant military victories were followed by some dramatic defeats – notably the failure of his Russian campaign.
For the attack on Moscow, Napoleon gathered his forces into a spectacular Grand Army of 680,000 men. Although the force was hampered by the condition of the roads as the Russian winter approached, Napoleon successfully reached Moscow and occupied the city. The conventional wisdom of warfare at the time was that once your capital was lost you admitted defeat and sued for peace. Unfortunately for Napoleon, Czar Alexander was unsporting enough not to surrender, so Napoleon found himself stuck in Moscow with no obvious way forward. The situation would have been bad enough in any case, but much of Moscow was destroyed by fire – either as a result of carelessness by the French or deliberate arson by the Russians. Napoleon was now stuck there with winter setting in and no obvious way forward. After a month, he moved his forces out of the city and attempted to engage the Russians, but the Czar's army avoided a pitched battle.
Supplies were running short and his army was no longer in any position to continue an offensive campaign. Napoleon decided to retreat.
|Painting by Illarion Pryanishnikov|
The retreat from Moscow has become the stuff of legend. The French army had a policy of living off the land, foraging for food in the countryside that it was moving through. The Russians adopted a scorched earth policy, destroying food stores in all the areas that the French would have to move through. Unable to find food, struggling with roads that had turned to mud under the weight of the traffic, trapped in the Russian winter without proper winter clothing and constantly harried by Russian troops who refused to form up for battle but who raided the column mercilessly, Napoleon’s Grand Army was reduced, according to some estimates, to just 22,000 men.
The losses suffered by the Grand Army were never to be made good – there simply weren't enough men of fighting age available to replenish their ranks.
|Detail, "La Chef de la Grande Nation dans une triste Position", French copy of George Cruikshank's 1813 "The Head of the Great Nation, in a Queer Situation!"|
Napoleon now faced the wrath of the Russians, the Prussians and the Austrians. What is often forgotten is that, by moving against Russia, Napoleon committed the classic error of European strategists and found himself fighting a two front war. When we talk about Wellington's Peninsular campaign we usually think of it as being confined to fighting in southern and central Spain and Portugal. Napoleon had had significant successes in Spain but once he left the country and concentrated his efforts on Central and Eastern Europe, the French armies there were noticeably less successful. By 1814 Wellington had driven them north and actually crossed the Pyrenees into France itself. He prepared to march on Paris, but was too late. The combined Austrian, Prussian and Russian armies had already got there.
|Off to Elba, 1814 - classic contemporary cartoon by Gillray|
With the fall of Paris, the French government (unlike Czar Alexander after the fall of Moscow) surrendered to the Allied powers. Napoleon, whose armies were south of the city, wanted to advance northward and try to recapture it, but the government no longer supported him and his marshals refused to carry out his plans. On 11 April 1814, Napoleon signed his abdication as Emperor and he then headed south to Fréjus (near Cannes) where he boarded the British ship HMS Undaunted, which was to carry him into exile on Elba.
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The Napoleonic wars provide the background to my series of books about James Burke. Napoleon's exile to Elba was, as we all know now, was not to mark the end of his influence in France. Even while he was exiled, Bonapartists were plotting his return and their attempts to assassinate Wellington is the starting point for Burke at Waterloo.
After being unavailable in the UK since summer, all three books about James Burke are being republished by Endeavour in January and February next year. I'm hoping that they will be available to pre-order in December and I will certainly be writing more about that over the next few weeks.
Burke served in the peninsula too. My book about his activities there has already been written, but publication depends on sales of the first three. In the past I haven't been able to work myself up into the paroxysms of anger that many authors show over book piracy, though I know that there are people who have stolen my books. Sadly, nowadays piracy is getting so bad that it is affecting people's ability to publish. If you enjoy the Burke books, please buy them. If you don't pay for them my publishers won't commission any more, which would be a shame as I've enjoyed writing them and I know many people have enjoyed reading them.