Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The Polish Campaign


Having deprived the Elector of Hesse-Cassel, the Duke of Brunswick, and the Prince of Orange of their possessions; concluded an alliance with Saxony, whose Elector was raised to the dignity of King and joined the Rhenish Confederacy; and compelled the Prussian provincial authorities to swear allegiance preparatory to leaving General Clarke as Governor-General, Napoleon turned his unwearied attention to Poland. There he anticipated meeting the slow-moving Russian army before it reached Germany. The Commander-in-chief of the Czar's forces was Marshal Kamenskoi, a man of eighty years of age, who shortly afterwards became insane, and was succeeded by Bennigsen, on whom the soldiers placed considerably more reliance.

The partition of Poland by Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1795—a wound by no means healed—afforded an opportunity, had Napoleon decided to take advantage of it, for an appeal to the national spirit of the Poles to assert itself to regain their country's independence, an aspiration which is alive to-day. The Emperor sought to temporise, and when an influential deputation waited upon him to ask his assistance for the Poles, he evaded the point by a skilful answer which neither said yea nor nay to their request, but was nicely calculated to secure their enthusiasm on his behalf. The truth is, that while Napoleon did not disdain Polish recruits for the French army, he perceived that it would have been dangerous to further exasperate Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Indeed, Austria was arming already, Prussia was endeavouring to recuperate, and Russia was preparing a surprise.

The numerical strength of the various armies was, as far as can be ascertained, as follows: France, 145,000; Russia, 100,000; Prussia, 15,000. The Emperor's first head-quarters were at Posen, but on Murat entering Warsaw at the end of November 1806, after some desultory fighting, he decided to move to that city, where he arrived with his staff on the 18th December. At Pultusk, Lannes experienced a severe check at the hands of Bennigsen, whose troops outnumbered the French by 5000. A violent snow-storm made the work doubly heavy for both contestants, but the Russians had fewer difficulties to contend with than the attacking party, which was obliged to, wade through slush that numbed the soldiers to the bone. They quitted themselves well, however, and forced the enemy to retreat until the cavalry and reserve were brought into action, when the French were forced to give up the unequal contest with the loss of 6000 men, one thousand more than that of the Russians. At Golymin, a somewhat similar disaster occurred to Davout, Augereau, and Murat, and these two misfortunes largely determined Napoleon to suspend hostilities for a time. Both armies therefore took up winter quarters, Napoleon on the forest-clad banks of the Vistula, the Russians near the Narew.

Bennigsen, now in chief command, knowing the almost desperate situation of the King of Prussia, who was shut up in Konigsberg, upon which the divisions of Ney and Bernadotte were slowly closing, saw what he thought was an excellent opportunity to surprise Napoleon. He would assume the offensive, relieve the important fortress of Graudentz, then feebly held by a Prussian garrison, and protect Konigsberg. But the Emperor, whilst enjoying the social life of Warsaw, was not to be caught quite so easily, and was speedily on the march. Through a despatch from Bernadotte, which was intercepted by a band of Cossacks, the Russian general got to know of the enemy's movements, and perforce had to give up his former plan or run the risk of a disastrous defeat. Many a game of military hide-and-seek followed, often accompanied by severe losses. Matters were brought to a crisis on the 7th February 1807, when both armies bivouaced within sight of each other at Eylau, the French to the number of 50,000 entering the town after an affray with the Russians, who probably totaled about 75,000. The corps under Ney, Bernadotte, and Davout, having been ordered to join the main force, were expected to afford valuable help.

Never was there a more keenly-contested field. It was snowing heavily when the first shells began to plough the opposing ranks. In a single charge nearly half the men in Augereau's corps were annihilated, and their commander wounded. Davout returned the compliment, and was on the point of succeeding when the Russians received reinforcements and compelled him to fall back. Ney, who had duly arrived, and Murat, were more successful, but at the end of eighteen hours' fighting it was difficult to tell who had secured the advantage. Napoleon frankly confessed that it was quite possible he might have retreated, but when the next morning dawned, leaden and sullen, it was found that the Russians had disappeared, leaving him in possession of the field. On the 14th, Napoleon wrote to the Empress: "The country is covered with the dead and the wounded. This is not the pleasant part of war," while to his brother Joseph, he related some of the hardships of the campaign. "The officers of the staff," he says, "have not undressed for two months, many not for four months. I myself have not taken off my boots for a fortnight. We are in the midst of snow and mud, without wine, brandy, or bread. We have nothing but potatoes to eat; we make long marches and counter-marches—no pleasant experience. We have to fight with the bayonet under a tremendous fire of grape, the wounded have then to be carried back 150 miles in open sleighs."

An incident which occurred at this period exemplifies very clearly how Napoleon could rebuke an officer and show at the same time that he had not forfeited his trust in him. It should be added that the Emperor did not always deal so leniently with a subordinate as he did with this particular individual.

One evening a bundle of despatches was delivered to Napoleon. "Surely these despatches have been a long time on their way!" he remarked to his attendant. "How is this? Tell the orderly officer who brought them that I wish to speak to him."

The officer entered, mud-bespattered and obviously ill at ease.

"Sir," said the Emperor, "at what hour were these despatches placed in your hands?"

"At eight o'clock in the evening, sire."

"And how many leagues had you to ride?"

"I do not know precisely, sire."

"But you ought to know, sir. An orderly officer ought to know that. I know it. You had twenty-seven miles to ride, and you set off at eight o'clock. Look at your watch, sir. What o'clock is it, now?"

"Half-past twelve, sire. The roads were in a terrible state. In some places the snow obstructed my passage—"

"Poor excuses, sir—poor excuses. Retire, and await my orders."

As the door closed behind the unfortunate messenger, whose unhappy frame of mind it is not difficult to realise, Napoleon remarked, "This cool, leisurely gentleman wants stimulating. The reprimand I have given him will make him spur his horse another time. Let me see—my answer must be delivered in _two hours. I have not a moment to lose."

He replied to the communications and recalled the officer who had brought the despatches.

"Set off immediately, sir," said the Emperor; "these despatches must be delivered with the utmost speed. General Lasalle must receive my orders by three o'clock. You understand?"

"Sire, by half-past two the general shall have the orders of which I have the honour to be the bearer."

"Very well, sir, mount your horse—but stop!" he added, as the officer was about to make his exit. "Tell General Lasalle," and a magnetic smile lit up the Emperor's face for an instant, "that it will be agreeable to me that you should be the person selected to announce to me the success of these movements."

After the terrible fight at Eylau, which proved that the French arms were not invincible and added considerably to the prestige of the Russian army, Napoleon felt compelled to concentrate his forces still further. Although he was within an easy march of Konigsberg, upon which Bennigsen had retreated, and had promised his soldiers before the action that "their fatigue will be compensated by a luxurious and honourable repose" at that city, he determined to try Fortune no further. He put down the sword of war and took up the pen of peace, writing a letter to the King of Prussia calculated to woo him from his allies. After the triumph of Jena Napoleon had asked half of Prussia as the price of peace, now he was willing to give back all the conquered territory east of the river Elbe, and at the same time to release Prussia from any future strife he might have with Russia.

We have already noted that Frederick William III. possessed little strength of will, of which fact the Czar as well as Napoleon was fully aware. Alexander determined to make the alliance between Russia and Prussia still more binding, feeling confident that Eylau was the beginning of the end so far as the Corsican upstart was concerned. The diplomacy of Napoleon received a check, and a treaty between Russia and Prussia was arranged at Bartenstein in April 1807, which, while it provided for eventualities which might follow the defeat of Napoleon, had the more immediate effect of strengthening the wavering purpose of the Prussian monarch.