Napoleon watching the burning Moscow.
After three days the fire began to abate, and on 18 September Napoleon rode back into Moscow. The fire died out the following day, order was restored and normality of a sort returned. Some of the inhabitants who had fled actually began to drift back into the city. But nothing seemed normal about this campaign any more to the men of the Grande Armée, who were horrified at the Russian burning of the city. ‘How can one make war on barbarians like these?’ complained Lieutenant Henckens, echoing a widely-held view. And Napoleon himself was baffled.
According to the parameters by which he, and most European states and statesmen, operated, he had won the war. The fact that the Russian army slunk away rather than surrendering did not alter this seemingly obvious fact; that is why he made no attempt at vigorous pursuit or at rounding up the odd stray unit and the thousands of stragglers and walking wounded.
The absence of a delegation formally surrendering Moscow to him was a blow, but that did not change the fact that he was in possession of the ancient capital. The fire, which had destroyed about two-thirds of the city, had robbed him of a wealth of material resources, but it did not affect the supply situation in a critical way. It did have a psychological effect on him and on his troops, but it had no strategic significance.
The real problem was that Napoleon was losing the initiative. He had calculated that if Alexander continued in his refusal to negotiate, he would play on the natural divisions within Russian society to produce a political crisis which would oblige the Tsar to treat with him or risk being replaced by a man who would. Napoleon was a master of propaganda, and he was usually – with the notable exception of Spain – able to persuade local populations that their armies were beaten and their governments or rulers politically bankrupt. He had been confident that he would find enough discontented merchants and liberal aristocrats, not to mention rebellious servants, through whom to foment some kind of revolution if necessary. But as he sat in an empty Moscow, he found himself in a propaganda black hole. He could not even find spies – ‘neither for silver nor for gold could one find a single person ready to go to St Petersburg or to infiltrate the army’, Caulaincourt noted. The burnt-out city no longer represented a political asset or even a forum. Napoleon could find nobody to talk to and no way of getting his message out. He was at a loss as to what to do next.
He had never meant to linger in Moscow, and the fire only confirmed him in this intention. When he returned to the Kremlin from Petrovskoie he began to make plans for a withdrawal. But there was no logical place to draw back to, short of Vilna, and that would mean losing face as well as the initiative. He therefore considered leaving the main body of his army in Moscow and setting off in the direction of St Petersburg with Prince Eugène’s corps and a few other units. He could defeat Wintzingerode and perhaps Wittgenstein as well, which might frighten the capital and force Alexander to treat. And if he needed to, he could veer back towards Vitebsk, while the forces he had left in Moscow could march back to Smolensk.
Prince Eugène was apparently keen on the plan, but others in Napoleon’s entourage raised endless objections – so much so that, according to Baron Fain, ‘they managed for the first time to make him doubt the superiority of his own assessment’. Some of them wanted to fall back and take winter quarters in Smolensk; others suggested a march on the industrial cities of Tula and Kaluga followed by a foray through the rich lands of the south. But Napoleon would be leaving behind all his supplies and his lines of communication, both of which were tied to Minsk and Vilna. Also, in the Ukraine he would have been at the mercy of Austria.
In the absence of any obvious military course to follow, he fell back on the idea of negotiation, assuming that if he could somehow get across to Alexander that he was prepared to be generous, the Tsar would come to realise that a settlement would be the best way out of the impasse for both of them. The problem was how to open up a channel of communication.
The only Russian of any standing left in Moscow when the French entered was General Ivan Akinfevich Tutolmin, who had taken over the directorship of the city’s great orphanage on his retirement from the army. He had remained with his charges, and when the French entered the city he asked for and obtained from them a regular guard of gendarmes to protect his institution. On the day of his return to Moscow, Napoleon sent for the General and gave him money for his orphanage. He also asked him to write to its patroness, the Dowager Empress, with a view to opening negotiations.
Another potential intermediary was Ivan Alekseevich Yakovlev, a man of substance who had been unable to get away from Moscow on time. On 20 September he summoned Yakovlev to the Kremlin, where the unfortunate Russian was subjected to the usual self-justificatory harangue, part bombast, part pleading, delivered in a tone that veered from the cajoling to the bullying. There had never been any reason for war, Napoleon declared, and if there had been, then the battlefield should have been in Lithuania, not in the heart of Russia. The retreat into the heartland and the refusal to negotiate were not dictated by patriotism but by barbarism. Peter the Great would call them barbarians for having burnt Moscow. ‘I have no reason to be in Russia,’ he complained. ‘I do not want anything from her, as long as the treaty of Tilsit is respected. I want to leave here, as my only quarrel is with England. Ah, if only I could take London! I would not leave that. Yes, I wish to go home. If the Emperor Alexander wants peace, he only has to let me know.’
Napoleon gave Yakovlev and his family safe conduct out of Moscow on condition he delivered a letter to Alexander for him. The letter, dated 20 September, informed the Tsar that Moscow had been burnt on the orders of Rostopchin, which Napoleon condemned as an act of barbarism and for which he expressed heartfelt regret. He reminded Alexander that in Vienna, Berlin, Madrid and every other city he had occupied the civil administration had been left in place, and this had guaranteed life and property. He expressed the conviction that Rostopchin’s conduct had not been in accord with Alexander’s wishes or orders. ‘I have made war on Your Majesty without animosity,’ he assured Alexander, saying that a single note from him would put an end to hostilities.
Napoleon also sent a minor civil servant, the commissar Rukhin, to St Petersburg with a proposal for peace, but the poor man was set upon at the first Russian outpost he reached and tortured as a suspected French spy. It was only after a couple of weeks that he was able to hand on Napoleon’s letter.
On 3 October, Napoleon asked Caulaincourt to go to St Petersburg in person to open negotiations, but Caulaincourt excused himself, saying that Alexander would not receive him. Napoleon then decided to send Lauriston, who had reached headquarters just before Gzhatsk. ‘I want peace, I need peace, I must have peace!’ Napoleon told him as he set off two days later. ‘Just save my honour!’
‘Like everyone else, the Emperor realised that his repeated messages would, by showing up the difficulty of his position, only confirm the enemy in his hostile dispositions,’ argued Caulaincourt. ‘Yet he kept sending him new ones! For a man who was so politic, such a good calculator, this reveals an extraordinary blind faith in his own star, and one might almost say in the blindness or the weakness of his adversaries! How, with his eagle’s eye and his superior judgement could he delude himself to such a degree?’
Nor did Napoleon draw the right conclusions from the fire. He dismissed Rostopchin’s firing of the city as the irresponsible act of a deranged Asiatic, and did not believe that it had been in any way an expression of popular feeling. He was right in a sense, but he failed to grasp that the blame for the destruction of Moscow would fall on him, while the symbol of the burning city would unite the Tsar with his nation and turn the war into a fight to the death.
Napoleon’s reaction to the fire was to demonstrate that if it had been meant to deny him the supplies he needed, it had failed in its purpose. He backed this up by giving the impression that, fire or no fire, he was prepared to sit it out in Moscow, spending the winter there if necessary. He ordered fresh troops to come and reinforce him, and talked of raising levies of ‘Polish cossacks’ who would sweep the countryside and keep lines of communication secure. He also spoke of bringing the actors of the Comédie Française to Moscow to entertain them through the winter months. He imagined that all this would put Alexander under increased pressure to negotiate. He was, to some extent, bluffing.
On the face of it, there was nothing to stop Napoleon from taking his winter quarters in Moscow. Although much had been destroyed, enough had survived in cellars and buildings that had escaped the flames to feed and clothe his army for some months. There were even quantities of cannons, muskets, cartridges, shot and powder left in the city’s arsenal. The only area in which supplies were deficient was fodder for the horses, but this was crucial, for without horses he would be able neither to keep his lines of communication open nor to open a fresh campaign in the spring.
Another crucial factor was the situation in his rear and on his wings. From the moment that St Cyr had pushed Wittgenstein back from Polotsk, there was not much activity on that wing. Conditions in the 2nd and 6th Corps were not bad, although there was a persistent shortage of victuals. The state of the troops varied a great deal, with the French, Swiss, Portuguese and Croat infantry and the French and Polish cavalry in good shape, but the Bavarians in very poor condition. They had been prone to disease, and after General Wrede took over command following the death of General Deroy, they went to pieces. ‘The Bavarian soldiers left the colours in their hundreds and came to Wilna, pretending to be ill, in order to get into the hospitals,’ according to General van Hogendorp, Governor General of Lithuania. He rounded up 1100 of them, and found that only about a hundred were actually ill, so he sent the rest back to their units, only to find them deserting once more.
The troops positioned on Napoleon’s extreme right wing, in the south, under the command of Prince Schwarzenberg, were in far better shape, principally because their commander studiously avoided fighting and had an unspoken agreement with his Russian opposite number not to engage in unnecessary hostilities.
In order to strengthen his position, Napoleon had ordered Marshal Victor, who had been stationed in East Prussia with his 9th Corps of some 40,000 men, to move forward into Russia and take up position in the Smolensk area, from which he could come to the assistance of the main army or either of the wings if necessary. Theoretically, Napoleon’s position was quite strong.
‘He knew to the last man how many men he had stationed between the Rhine and Moscow,’ according to Rapp, and the numbers told him that he was still strong enough to deal with any eventuality. What he could not see was the condition of the troops.
General Pouget had been lightly wounded, so in September he was given the post of Governor of Vitebsk. The garrison consisted of nine hundred men and two four-pounder cannon, which does not sound insignificant. In actual fact, apart from sixteen gendarmes and two dozen soldiers from the Young Guard, the rest were a motley crew of stragglers, rounded-up deserters and men who had come out of hospital, with every nationality in the Grande Armée represented. Most of them had fallen behind shortly after crossing the Niemen and had never seen the enemy. They were poorly trained, with no idea of how to look after their weapons, carry out regular patrols or perform picket duty. They were unmotivated, lazy and dirty. When the time came to retreat, they would break ranks at the first sight of a cossack and defy Pouget’s attempt to make a stand, with the result that he was captured along with the rest of them. He later claimed that had he been alone with the gendarmes and the two dozen Young Guard, he would have got through.
Lieutenant Jean-Roch Coignet of the Grenadiers of the Guard was on his way to join the Grande Armée in July, and as he came through Vilna he was given the job of taking a column of some seven hundred stragglers forward to rejoin their units. Since he had started life as a shepherd boy, this should have presented no problem. But the 133 Spaniards in the column promptly deserted, and when he went after them they fired at him. He had to find a cavalry unit to help him round them up, and then it was only by making them draw straws and shooting half of them that he could get the column to stay together at all.
The whole area behind the Grande Armée was awash with soldiery which was of no military use and only served to ravage the country, arousing the fury of the inhabitants. Bands of deserters from various units and of every nationality, usually under the chieftainship of a Frenchman, established themselves in manor houses a small way off the main road and, buying the good will of the locals in exchange for protection, preyed on the traffic travelling along it.
General Rapp, who had travelled from Danzig to Napoleon’s headquarters at Smolensk, was horrified at the state of the army’s rear. According to him, the Grande Armée left behind more debris than a beaten one, with the result that echelons of recruits marching up to join it were demoralised by what they saw. Many actually died of hunger along the road, as did the fresh remounts being walked from France and Germany, and the cattle being driven up from Austria and Italy. ‘From the moment of our leaving Vilna, in every village, in every farm, we found isolated soldiers who were abandoning the army under various pretexts,’ wrote Prince Wilhelm of Baden, who marched in with Victor’s corps in September.
Very little could be done about this state of affairs, since the dispositions made by Napoleon in these areas had been confined to a minimum. Wishing to keep political options open, he had not set up proper organs of local government. As a result, the administration of the occupied areas was chaotic and venal. Beginning with the devious Pradt in Warsaw and the despotic Hogendorp in Vilna, and ending with the venal commissaires in the various towns along the way, there was no real sense of purpose, no dedication, and no single authority capable of restoring order. At the end of September, more than six weeks after the battle, the streets of Smolensk were still strewn with corpses, on which stray dogs from the surrounding countryside were happily feeding. ‘Worse organisation, grosser negligence I have never seen, never dreamed of,’ wrote Captain Franz Roeder of the Hessian Life Guards who marched through on his way to Moscow.
Those who suffered most as a result of this state of affairs were the sick and the wounded lying in the hospitals at Vilna, Minsk, Vitebsk, Polotsk, Smolensk and, perhaps most of all, the survivors of Borodino, cooped up in the monastery of Kolotskoie and at Mozhaisk. There were thousands of French wounded, including twenty-eight generals, scattered in various buildings at Mozhaisk. The commissaire des guerres Bellot de Kergorre, who was in charge, claimed that no provision had been made for them. The more mobile would drag themselves into the street and beg from passersby, while he pilfered food from passing supply trains in order to feed the rest. They died of hunger and of dehydration, as there was little water nearby and he had been given no buckets or vessels of any sort. He had no dressings, no lint, no bandages, no stretchers, no beds, no candles and no nurses. He appealed to Junot, whose corps was stationed at Mozhaisk, for help, but the Westphalian soldiers were more trouble than they were worth. When his charges died, all he could do was dump them in the street outside. He also had hundreds of Russian wounded, who subsisted on the stalks of cabbages dug up in neighbouring gardens and the occasional dead horse.
However many men and horses Napoleon may have had, and whatever the quantities of food and fodder at his disposal, the manner in which these resources were being husbanded meant that he could not possibly remain in Moscow for more than a few weeks without his forces beginning to disintegrate. But rather than order a gradual evacuation of all sick and wounded westwards, he was ordering the call-up of another 140,000 men in France, 30,000 in Italy, 10,000 in Bavaria, and smaller contingents from Poland, Prussia and Lithuania, and he begged Marie-Louise to write to her father asking him to reinforce Schwarzenberg. ‘Not only do I want to have reinforcements sent from all quarters,’ he wrote to Maret in Vilna, ‘I also want those reinforcements to be exaggerated, I want the various sovereigns sending me reinforcements to publish the fact in the papers, doubling the number they are sending.’
What he did not take into account was that as St Petersburg was the administrative capital, housing all the institutions of state, the loss of Moscow did not in any way weaken the Russian state’s ability to function or affect the interests of its rulers, while its occupation and destruction would contribute mightily to the mobilisation of public opinion in the national cause. His bluff was therefore likely to be called.