Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Russian Campaign

We have seen how Napoleon and Alexander had sworn friendship on the raft in the Niemen and at Erfurt, and how they planned to divide Europe between them. But after the birth of an heir, Napoleon began to think that two masters in Europe might quarrel, especially as Alexander was no longer so friendly. You see, the Russian emperor had by this time discovered that Napoleon's promises could not be relied upon, and when Napoleon—whose rudeness passed all bounds at times—called him to order like a naughty schoolboy for not enforcing with sufficient severity the Continental Blockade, their relations became so strained that they were soon open foes.

In 1812, therefore, England, Russia, and Spain began the Sixth Coalition, which all the other European nations were in time to join, and which was to pursue its work until Napoleon had twice fallen from the dizzy heights to which genius and ambition had raised him. Napoleon's downfall was due, 1st, to his measureless ambition, which threatened to annihilate every other power; 2nd, to the fact that he would listen to neither argument nor advice, but deemed himself infallible; 3rd, to his obstinate attempts to enforce the Continental Blockade, thus angering many Europeans, while injuring England little; 4th, to his rash and obstinate war in Spain, by which he tied up an important part of his army; 5th, to his attack on Russia, where, instead of fighting against men only, he also had to face a deadly climate.

Napoleon began the fatal Russian campaign contrary to the advice or wishes of his ablest marshals, whose arguments he silenced with his old refrain, "The French love glory; to give them glory is to give them happiness!" But the emperor forgot that campaigns can end in defeat as well as in glory. Alexander proved wiser, and clearly perceiving that some of Napoleon's German allies were loyal only because they feared him, said, "If the Emperor Napoleon should experience a reverse, the whole of Germany would rise up to oppose his retreat or to prevent the arrival of his re-enforcements!"

Just before starting, Napoleon held a brilliant reunion of all the royalties and aristocracy at Dresden, where for the last time all paid homage to him, no one suspecting how soon all his magnificence would come to an end. After the festivities were over, court attire was laid aside, and the emperor, having bidden his wife farewell, set out to invade Russia with nearly half a million men of different nationalities, for every subordinate country had been asked to send troops for his use.

It was with a large part of this mixed "army of twenty nations" that Napoleon himself crossed the Niemen and pursued a Russian army into the heart of the country. The Russians, however, were fleeing before him merely so as to lure him on, and were destroying everything as they passed, so that the invaders had to bring their supplies over longer and longer distances. Nevertheless, knowing that great stores had been collected at Moscow,—where he intended to quarter his forces in comfort for the winter season,—Napoleon hastened boldly on.

Twice on the way, the Russians turned and fought bloody battles, and were defeated but not destroyed, first at Smolensk and then at Borodino (1812). Here, on the eve of the struggle, the emperor received a portrait of the baby King of Rome, which he proudly set up outside his tent, so that officers and men could admire it. Then, saying his child was still too young and innocent to gaze upon such sights as awaited them on the morrow, he ordered this picture carefully packed up.

When Moscow—the sacred city and then the capital of Russia—was reached, Napoleon was surprised to find it deserted and to be allowed to enter without opposition. Fearing some ambush, the French marched in warily, surprised to find only a few stragglers in the streets, instead of the usual 300,000 inhabitants. Even prisons were empty, the Russian general having liberated all captives before leaving; but, although the Russians had apparently abandoned everything to the foe, some of them had, in reality, made very clever preparations to frustrate all Napoleon's carefully made plans.