Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory. — Disraeli

Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

Glory at Erfurt and Humiliation in Spain


The cloud of misfortune which overshadowed the French armies in Spain and Portugal gradually grew in size and density until it covered practically the whole of Europe. Encouraged by the success of the insurgents in the Iberian Peninsula and the triumph of British arms in Portugal, both Austria and Germany took courage and prepared to throw off the yoke. In Austria a landwehr, or local militia, designed to number 180,000 of the young men of the country, came into being; in Prussia patriotic clubs sprang up on all hands, while such able statesmen as Stein, who had been Minister of State for Trade, and Scharnhorst, a skilful officer and organizer, worked nobly in the interests of military reforms which were destined to bear much good fruit in due course.

Napoleon was more immediately concerned with the intentions of the former Power. To a certain extent he had clipped the wings of the Prussian eagle by forcing the King into an undertaking that for the next ten years his army should not exceed 40,000 troops. This did not prevent many civilians being quietly drafted into a reserve for future service, or the formation of a school of thought with the highest patriotic ideals. The Emperor's policy was thoroughly sound. By still holding the fortresses of Glogau, Stettin, and Kustrin, and reducing the number of national troops to a minimum, the French troops which had been kept in Prussia since the campaign of her humiliation were set free for service in the South. Napoleon already knew of Austria's warlike disposition, and was even a little uncertain as to Russia. Suspicion was mutual, and as he was about to set out for Spain to take command of his troops, he thought it advisable to "sound" the temper of his ally personally.

It was arranged that the Emperor and the Czar should meet at the little town of Erfurt towards the end of September 1808. No fewer than seventy sovereigns and princes came to the meeting, including the Kings of Saxony, Bavaria, Wurtemberg, and Westphalia, the Grand Duke Constantine of Russia, Prince William of Prussia, the Dukes of Saxe-Weimar, Saxe-Gotha, and Holstein-Oldenburg, together with distinguished marshals and courtiers. There were reviews, plays in the theatre acted by the most talented artists in France—Talma having been promised "a parterre full of kings"—and a stag-hunt on the battle-field of Jena. Costly presents were exchanged, one of the Czar's gifts being a magnificent Persian horse, silvery grey in colour, which Napoleon afterwards used by a strange coincidence in the battles of Vitebsk, Smolensk, and Borodino during the Russian campaign. The animal also accompanied him to Elba.

This great diplomatic performance was magnificently staged. If less dramatic than Tilsit, it was no less important. The festivities and conferences between the Emperor and Alexander lasted seventeen days. They parted on the 14th October, the anniversary of the great fight which did so much to make Napoleon master of Prussia. The terms of the Peace of Tilsit had not been kept too scrupulously by either monarch, and when one is uncertain as to one's own morality, a strong suspicion is usually entertained as to that of others. Alexander had not withdrawn his troops from the Danubian Provinces, which suggested that he still had in view the partition of the Ottoman Empire, while Napoleon, until his misfortunes in the Peninsula, had seen fit to keep a large number of troops in Silesia. Spain and Portugal were stepping-stones to the East as well as necessary acquisitions for the enforcement of his Continental System, facts quite well comprehended by the Czar of all the Russias. Napoleon, who was as well informed concerning his ally's weak spot, threw out suggestions for an expedition to India, and consented to Finland, Moldavia, and Wallachia being added to the Russian Empire. Alexander returned these courtesies by approving of Napoleon's recent moves regarding Naples, Tuscany, and the Peninsula, and promised to lend his aid should Austria come to blows with France. "We talked of the affairs of Turkey at Erfurt," the Emperor told Las Cases at St Helena. "Alexander was very desirous that I should consent to his obtaining possession of Constantinople, but I could never bring my mind to consent to it. It is the finest harbour in the world, is placed in the finest situation, and is itself worth a kingdom." As a concession to Prussia, probably because of the Czar's wish, Silesia was to be returned to her former possessor.

Chancellor Pasquier says of Napoleon at Erfurt that "On no other occasion, perhaps, did the suppleness and craftiness of his Italian spirit shine to more brilliant advantage." Boutourlin avers that notwithstanding these qualities Alexander felt that when the interests of Napoleon were adversely affected the friendship would not last, "that the grand crisis was approaching which was destined either to consolidate the universal empire which the French Emperor was endeavouring to establish on the Continent, or to break the chains which retained so many Continental States under his rule."

Mention must be made of the interviews which took place at this time between Napoleon and Wieland and Goethe, two of the greatest literary geniuses which Germany has given to the republic of letters. Both poets were fascinated by the magic personality of Napoleon, and both have left us some record of their conversation with the man who at this period was in very truth a ruler of kings.

"I had been but a few minutes in the room," Wieland says, "when Napoleon crossed it to come to us. I was presented by the Duchess of Weimar. He paid me some compliments in an affable tone, fixing his eye piercingly upon me. Few men have appeared to me to possess, in the same degree, the power of penetrating at a glance the thoughts of others. I have never beheld anyone more calm, more simple, more mild, or less ostentatious in appearance. Nothing about him indicated the feeling of power in a great monarch. He spoke to me as an old acquaintance would speak to an equal. 'That was more extraordinary on his part, he conversed with me exclusively for an hour and a half, to the great surprise of the assembly. He appeared to have no relish for anything gay. In spite of the prepossessing amenity of his manners, he seemed to me to be of bronze. Towards midnight I began to feel that it was improper to detain him so long, and I took the liberty to request permission to retire: 'Go, then,' said he in a friendly tone. 'Goodnight.' "

The Emperor conferred the Cross of the Legion of Honour on Wieland, a mark of Imperial favour which he likewise showed to Goethe. The interview between Napoleon and the latter took place on the 2nd October 1808, in the presence of Talleyrand, Daru, Berthier, and Savary. "You are a man!" he exclaimed, either in a burst of admiration or of flattery, and then he asked the poet his age and particulars of his work, adding that he had read "Werther" seven times and had taken the volume to Egypt. "After various remarks, all very just," says Goethe, "he pointed out a passage, and asked me why I had written so, it was contrary to nature. This opinion he developed in great clearness. I listened calmly, and smilingly replied that I did not know whether the objection had been made before; but that I found it perfectly just. . . . The Emperor seemed satisfied and returned to the drama, criticising it like a man who had studied the tragic stage with the attention of a criminal judge, and who was keenly alive to the fault of the French in departing from nature. He disapproved of all pieces in which Fate played a part. 'Those pieces belong to a dark epoch. Besides, what do they mean by Fate? Politics are Fate!'"

Even more interesting perhaps, because it so essentially reveals Napoleon's outlook on life, was a remark he made at a later meeting at which both Wieland and Goethe were present. He wished the latter to treat of the "Death of Caesar." "That," he said, "should be the great task of your life. In that tragedy you should show the world how much Cesar would have done for humanity, if only he had been allowed time to carry out his great plans." When we reflect on the events which had immediately preceded this notable utterance, on the grandiose schemes which were then being actively promulgated by the speaker for the conquest of Europe and the advancement of his Empire of the West, we can understand why Napoleon wished to woo this literary giant to his cause. "Come to Paris," Napoleon said in his abrupt, commanding way, "I desire it of you. There you will find a wider circle for your spirit of observation; there you will find enormous material for poetic creations." But it was not to be; Goethe had other wishes and ideals. Had he acceded to the despot's request the result would have been no more felicitous than that which had attended Voltaire's removal to the Court of Frederick the Great. Goethe loved Prussia too well to desert her, and while he admired Napoleon in some ways he did not admire him in all.

Peace with Great Britain was suggested by the two Emperors at Erfurt, but England had far too much to lose to seriously entertain such an overture. In his reply Canning made it perfectly clear that George III. was not prepared to break faith with his Portuguese, Sicilian, and Spanish allies. Both the King and his Minister fully realised the nature of the undertaking upon which they had embarked, and having put their hands to the plough there was to be no turning back. Their course gave rise to many blunders abroad and many heart-burnings at home, yet they loyally followed the precept of the great man whose ashes were now lying in Westminster Abbey. "England," said Pitt in his last public speech, "has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example."

We must now glance across the Pyrenees at the strife still going on in the Peninsula. Had Sir John Moore secured the active and loyal assistance of the people, as he clearly had a right to expect, all might have been well with the cause of the allies. The preliminary successes of the Spaniards, however, had made them over-confident, and over-confidence is a sure prelude to disaster. Of all their many mistakes, the most fatal was their preference for fighting with independent corps, each under a Captain-General. Instead of joining together in the common cause there was considerable rivalry and many misunderstandings between the various forces. As a consequence when Napoleon, feeling comparatively secure from Austrian menaces because of the Russian alliance, determined to lead his armies in person, the Spaniards were but ill-organized. Their antagonist, on the contrary, soon had at his disposal 300,000 trained soldiers divided into eight corps under his most skilled generals. "In a few days," the Emperor said before leaving Paris, "I shall set out to place myself at the head of my army, and, with the aid of God, crown at Madrid the King of Spain, and plant my eagles on the towers of Lisbon." The Spaniards could not muster at the moment more than 76,000 men, and whereas their cavalry totaled 2000, that of Napoleon was at least twenty times the number. A reserve of nearly 60,000 Spaniards was gathering in the rear, but would not be available for the first desperate onslaught, on the result of which so much would depend. The British army of some 30,000 was, by a series of misfortunes, in three divisions and unable to come up with any of the Spanish armies, which were also separated.

Napoleon began his movements and got into action while his opponents were thinking of what was likely to happen. Blake's ragged patriots were scattered by Lefebvre early in November after having been defeated at Tornosa and Reynosa. Soult defeated the army under the Count de Belvidere at Burgos on the 10th November, the Spaniards suffering a loss of 2000 men and 800 prisoners, as well as their ammunition and stores. The town, after having been pillaged, became the Emperor's headquarters. On the 22nd of the same month Castanos' forces, augmented by the men under Palafox, and amounting in all to 43,000, were routed by the 35,000 troops opposed to them by Lannes. After such a series of defeats it was not difficult for the Emperor to push towards Madrid, the outskirts of which he reached, after forcing the Somosierra Pass, on the 2nd December. The inhabitants made some show of resistance, but they were so badly organized as to preclude any possibility of serious defensive measures. Wishing to spare the city from bombardment, Napoleon sent a flag of truce, and a capitulation was speedily signed.

A soldier who was present thus relates the entry of the French into Madrid: "A heavy silence," he says, "had succeeded that confusion and uproar which had reigned within and without the walls of the capital only the day before. The streets through which we entered were deserted; and even in the market-place, the numerous shops of the vendors of necessaries still remained shut. The water-carriers were the only people of the town who had not interrupted their usual avocations. They moved about uttering their cries with the nasal, drawling tone, peculiar to their native mountains of Galicia, 'Quien quiere agua?'—Who wants water? No purchasers made their appearance; the waterman muttered to himself sorrowfully, 'Dios que la da,'—It is God's gift,—and cried again.

"As we advanced into the heart of the city, we perceived groups of Spaniards standing at the corner of a square, where they had formerly been in the habit of assembling in great numbers. They stood muffled in their capacious cloaks, regarding us with a sullen, dejected aspect. Their national pride could scarcely let them credit that any other than Spanish soldiers could have beaten Spaniards. If they happened to perceive among our ranks a horse which had once belonged to their cavalry, they soon distinguished him by his pace, and awakening from their apathy, would whisper together: 'Este caballo es Espanol'—That's a Spanish horse; as if they had discovered the sole cause of our success."

On the 7th December 1808, Napoleon issued a proclamation which was largely a fierce tirade against England and the English, whose armies were to be chased from the Peninsula. In the constitution which he framed for the nation he abolished the iniquitous Inquisition, and the old feudal system which had held Spain in its shackles for so long, reduced the number of monasteries and convents by two-thirds, improved the customs, and endeavoured to institute reforms which would have been beneficial. "It depends upon you," the Emperor told the people, "whether this moderate constitution which I offer you shall henceforth be your law. Should all my efforts prove vain, and should you refuse to justify my confidence, then nothing will remain for me but to treat you as a conquered province and find a new throne for my brother. In that case I shall myself assume the crown of Spain and teach the ill-disposed to respect that crown, for God has given me the power and the will to overcome all obstacles."

The concluding words are noteworthy. Napoleon now regarded himself as little less than omnipotent. Impelled by the force of his own volition, into a dangerous situation, he was to find it impossible to draw back when the nations which he had treated with contempt felt that self-confidence which alone made Leipzig and Waterloo possible. The Peninsular War was indeed what Talleyrand prophesied, "the beginning of the end."

After considerable hesitation, due to the varying and oftentimes contradictory accounts which he received as to what was actually happening in the field, Sir John Moore, having concentrated his troops, cautiously began to close upon Souk's army on the banks of the river Carrion. When Napoleon heard of this he speedily decided to crush the friends of Spain and Portugal by sheer force of numbers, God, according to him, being "on the side of the biggest battalions," a parallel remark to Nelson's "Only numbers can annihilate." Winter had set in with severity, but disregarding the inclemency of the weather, the Emperor marched with his 40,000 men along the Guadarrama Pass through the blinding sleet, traversing no fewer than twenty miles a day for ten days. Meanwhile Moore had given up hope of attacking and had decided to retreat as rapidly as possible. Unfortunately his troops did not follow the example of their noble commander; they broke away from every restraint, drinking and pillaging whenever they had opportunity. It is only just to add, however, that at Lugo, when there seemed an opportunity to contest Soult, who was following in their track, they stood to arms with a confidence and precision worthy of the best disciplined regiment in the British service. Lord Paget's corps, which covered the retreat, behaved with conspicuous bravery, and succeeded in worsting some of the chasseurs, the "Invincibles" of the French army.

"Before our reserve left Lugo," writes a soldier of the 75th Regiment who endured the hardships of this terrible retreat, "general orders were issued, warning and exhorting us to keep order, and to march together; but, alas! how could men observe order amidst such sufferings, or men whose feet were naked and sore, keep up with men who, being more fortunate, had better shoes and stronger constitutions? The officers in many points, suffered almost as much as the men. I have seen officers of the Guards, and others, worth thousands, with pieces of old blanket wrapped round their feet and legs; the men pointing at them, with a malicious satisfaction, saying 'There goes three thousand a year'; or 'There goes the prodigal son, on his return to his father, cured of his wanderings.'"

On the 11th January 1809, Coruna was reached, and several days afterwards the welcome sails of the British troop-ships made their appearance, ready to convey the survivors of the battle to be fought on the 16th to England and to home. Soult had the advantage of 4000 more troops and of a better position, but lacked ammunition, while the British general had been able to obtain a supply of new muskets from the vessels which rode at anchor in the Bay.

It was round the little village of Elvina that the fight raged most fiercely, for a French battery of eleven guns was placed on a ridge not more than 600 yards off, and from this commanding position shells were hurled at the British defenders with ruthless fury. Elvina was taken by the French and recaptured by the gallantry of Charles Napier, who led the fearless Irishmen of the 50th regiment. He then endeavoured to secure the French battery, but without success, and during the charge he was wounded and made prisoner.

"My brave 42nd," cried Moore, when the enemy was again advancing on the village, "if you have fired away all your ammunition, you have still your bayonets. Recollect Egypt! Remember Scotland! Come on, my brave countrymen!"

"Sir John," according to an eye-witness, "was at the head of every charge." Indeed, he had several narrow escapes before he received his death-wound. He was talking to Napier when, records the latter, "a round shot struck the ground between his horse's feet and mine. The horse leaped round, and I also turned mechanically, but Moore forced the animal back, and asked me if I was hurt. 'No, sir.' Meanwhile a second shot had torn off the leg of a 42nd man, who screamed horribly and rolled about so as to excite agitation and alarm in others. The General said, 'This is nothing, my lads; keep your ranks. My good fellow, don't make such a noise; we must bear these things better.' He spoke sharply, but it had a good effect, for this man's cries had made an opening in the ranks, and the men shrank from the spot, although they had not done so when others had been hit who did not cry out. But again Moore went off, and I saw him no more."

Sir John was struck by a cannon-ball which tore his flesh in several places and precluded all possibility of recovery. "I hope the people of England will be satisfied: I hope my country will do me justice," were the noble words which passed his parched lips as he lay dying on the field of victory.

"We buried him darkly at dead of night,

The sods with our bayonets turning;

By the struggling moonbeam's misty light,

And the lantern dimly burning."