Posts Tagged ‘Napoleon’

Mission Accomplished, circa 1808

Posted in General, On This Day on May 2nd, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

May 2, 1808:  Goya Gets Inspiration and the French Get Target Practice

Whatever Napoleon’s motives for invading Spain, they were not petty. He had no Gallic version of Halliburton, and Sevres was not trying to annex Lladros. None of his siblings were unemployed and needed a spare throne. First, Spain really was a cultural embarrassment; still shackled to its repressive Catholicism, Spain’s political and social development was two centuries behind the rest of Western Europe. (Spanish painting was excellent, however; the Church never discouraged that.) The ruling Bourbons had brought French debauchery to Spain, but not the Enlightenment. In fact, the Bourbons were eager to assimilate Spanish prejudices and rekindled the Inquisition. (There were not any Jews left but Freemasons proved to be flammable.) Furthermore, neither Spain nor Portugal were enforcing Napoleon’s trade boycott of Britain. Napoleon was resolved to “liberate” Spain.

In 1807 the Emperor actually persuaded Spain to permit the entry of the French army. The French purpose was ostensibly to invade Portugal; for its collaboration, Spain expected to be rewarded with most of the conquered country. However, Napoleon had other plans. In 1808, Napoleon coerced the King of Spain and the Crown Prince to abdicate, freeing Spain from Bourbon ignorance and incompetence. In their place, Napoleon set up as King his reluctant brother Joseph–who had been quite happy as the French satrap of Southern Italy. Bringing the Enlightenment to Spain, Joseph abolished the Inquisition and the remaining vestiges of feudalism. Unfortunately, the Spanish preferred their own ignorance and repression to foreign liberation.

On this day in 1808, Madrid revolted. A rallying cry of the resistance was “Down with Liberty”. Of course, the French army crushed the uprising. In his paintings, Francisco Goya depicted the initial slaughter and the summary executions that followed. Madrid may have been pacified, but the revolt spread throughout Spain. The French were unprepared to fight partisan warfare, with the Spanish resistance ambushing the French and then disappearing amidst a sympathetic civilian population. Furthermore, the war had an unparalleled savagery. The Spanish tortured to death their French prisoners; the French responded with wholesale slaughter. Goya also depicted these atrocities in a series of drawings called “The Horrors of War.” Indeed, a word was coined for this type of war: guerrilla–the Spanish for “little war.”

But it was not a little war. The initial uprising drove the French out of most of Spain in 1808. Then Napoleon had to invade the country a second time. He did regain control of the major cities, but he had to leave 300,000 men to hold Spain. Two-thirds of the army were assigned to protecting the supply lines against the Spanish guerrillas. The rest of the French force had to contend with the British force that occupied Portugal and was supporting the Spanish resistance. The British commander was unusually competent, a chap named Arthur Wellesley. Wellesley had already established himself (and a fortune) in India, where he had been a tax collector and enforcer (the two professions overlapped). Now this younger son of Anglo-Irish gentry would really make a name for himself; the French would certainly remember it. Leading the British as well as Spanish and Portuguese troops, Wellesley began a five-year campaign that would drive the French from Spain; and this time, the French could not afford a third invasion. There was no additional army to sacrifice. The Russian campaign precluded that possibility. For his victories in Spain, Wellesley was granted the title of Duke of Wellington in 1814. (And we should be grateful that the Duke was too important to be sent to America in 1814. Otherwise, Francis Scott Keyes would have composed the “White Flag Rag”.)

Perhaps the French also should have been grateful to Wellington. At least, they could fight a conventional war against him; when they lost, it was within the rules of military etiquette. But there were no rules, no etiquette in the war with the Spanish guerrillas; the French were trying to fight an enemy whom they could not find and could never understand. The French had cannons but were not sure where to aim; the Spanish had daggers and no doubts.

Your RDA of Military Genius

Posted in General, On This Day on December 2nd, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

December 2, 1805:  The French Get a Name for a Train Station

A congratulatory hug to any French friends (Catherine Deneuve and Marion Cotillard –if only they would let me) on the anniversary of Austerlitz.

Napoleon considered it his greatest victory; it certainly was his most obnoxious one.

To put it in Jeopardy terms, Napoleon allowed Russia and Austria to pick the categories AND ring in first. And he still smashed them.

Napoleon was inviting and begging the Russians and Austrians to attack; in fact, he seduced them. The French line had initially been situated on a plateau, an excellent defensive position that deterred the Austrians and the more competent Russian officers. So the accommodating Corsican withdrew his forces from the plateau. His enemies gratefully occupied the heights and advanced their lines.

Of course, the Austrians and Russians might have been a little wary about Napoleon’s gift. The eastern side of the plateau formed a formidable defense; however, the west side had the kind of gentle, charming slope that is advertised in real estate brochures. The French had little difficulty charging up the plateau, pushing the Russians and Austrians off the heights. Having smashed the center of the Allied line and regained the heights, the French were then very unkind to the exposed Russian left flank; it was driven into a lake.

The Russians and Austrians lost 27,000 men–one third of their army–at Austerlitz. The Emperor of Austria wrote his wife, “things did not go well today.”

Leo Tolstoy was a little more descriptive. His account of Austerlitz in “War and Peace” was probably longer than the battle.

Here is my abridged translation:

Prince Bolkonsky and Count Bezukhov were so preoccupied in a discussion of life, the soul and agricultural management that they had not noticed that their regiments had been massacred.

A furious General Kutuzov rode up to his esoteric officers and shrieked, “Why didn’t your troops occupy the defensive positions?”

Bezukhov waxed, “The Russian soul longs for suffering as a means of redemption. We gave the orders but those sturdy pure peasants stood in a stoic resignation.”

The exasperated commander asked, “Did you give the orders in Russian?”

Prince Bolkonsky shrugged, “Pourquoi?”

Waterloo or Lieu

Posted in On This Day on June 18th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 7 Comments

On this day in 1815 General von Blucher won the battle of Waterloo. The Duke of Wellington took the credit, and the Prussians pretended not to mind.

Wellington was willing to share his victory–with his alumni association:  “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” In other words, the elan of upper-class twits was a more decisive factor than French incompetence or the timely arrival of that friendly Prussian army.

In fact, Napoleon should have won Waterloo.  Wellington’s forces were a dubious compiliation of third choices: untested British troops, German forces more likely to desert and Dutch soldiers more likely to defect to the French. (The best British troops–Wellington’s veterans from the Peninsular War–had been shipped off to America, where they burned Washington but then had been decimated at New Orleans.)  By contrast, Napoleon’s army was larger and comprised of veterans; the ones who survived Russia had to be indestructible.     

Although Wellington had placed his forces in an excellent defensive position, the French army should have been able to grind them down and rout them.  However, that day Napoleon seemed to have already exiled himself  to St. Helena’s.  The Emperor who usually supervised every detail was abdicating all the decisions to his generals, who seemed intent to do everything wrong.  The French attacks are pointless or uncoordinated; the infantry gets bogged down while the cavalry is squandered.  The arrival of the Prussian army simply ended the French farce.

But what if the French had won Waterloo?  It would have ruined Wellington’s perfect record, and the innkeepers of Brussels would have been accepting Francs instead of Pounds that night; yet, Napoleon still would have lost eventually.  However much Russia, Prussia, Austria and Britain quarreled and undermined each other at the conference tables at the Congress of Vienna, they were not going to tolerate the return of Napoleon.  They would keep raising armies against him until they finally had defeated him.   ABBA eventually would have had a song.

Did Napoleon think otherwise?  He certainly must have overestimated his charisma.  Perhaps he expected that America would break the Treaty of Ghent, and that Andrew Jackson would lead an amphibious invasion of England.  (“One thousand canoes landed in Cornwall this morning….”)  No, Napoleon obviously was a gambler.  Any of us would have been content with his achievements in 1807: ruling France and Italy, and dominating Germany and Austria. We wouldn’t have invaded Spain or Russia, and eventually ended up an exiled pariah.  But then, none of us are Napoleon and we wouldn’t have overwhelmed Europe–and history– in the first place.

Why You’ve Never Heard of Kalman Marx

Posted in On This Day on May 5th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

Napoleon Bonaparte was history’s most aggressive liberal.  (Bill Maher is a distant second.)  The French Revolution and its chief champion swept away the laws that exalted one religion or persecuted another.  From France to Poland this spirit of Emancipation–supported by French bayonets–tore down the ghetto walls of a 1000 years. 

Of course, when Napoleon fell, the old prejudices and laws returned. The emancipation of the French Revolution and then the restoration of the Old Order had a profound effect on one family in Trier, Germany. When the French army conquered the Rhineland, it abolished the laws that had restricted where Jews could live and how they could earn a living. A rabbi’s son named Herschel Marx now had the freedom to become a lawyer. Unfortunately, after Napoleon’s defeat, Prussia took control of Trier. Prussian law in the early 19th century did not permit Jews to be lawyers. Herschel Marx had a choice: he could abandon his career and return to the ghetto or he could convert. Since he was a lawyer, there is no reason to think that he had principles. He became a Lutheran named Heinrich. The newly christened Heinrich Marx was starting a family and, although his wife Rachel refrained from converting, their children were duly baptized.  But for that, Trier Germany might have had a very dyspeptic rabbi named Kalman Marx.  Instead, history ended up with a self-proclaimed prophet called Karl.

 

The Art of War and Public Relations

Posted in General on June 10th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Napoleon needed something to do in 1798. The 28-year-old general had conquered Italy and forced Austria to capitulate–but that was a year ago. He sensed that his glory was already fading. The French government–a collection of kleptocrats known as the Directory–did have a project for him. He had been named “General of the Army of England.” Invading England certainly would be exciting; the British Navy would guarantee that. A French platoon was unlikely to make it to shore; and if it had, the English population would not be particularly cordial. No the invasion of England was a certain catastrophe, and definitely not Napoleon’s idea of glory.

A second proposal at least seemed less hopeless: invading Ireland. Allowing for the improbable prospects of a myopic British navy and a competent French one, a French army landing in Ireland would find itself very popular among the oppressed and impoverished victims of English rule. The Irish would have offered all they had to the French: potatoes and volunteer militia armed only with farm implements. Nonetheless, Napoleon might have succeeded in driving the English out of Ireland–and then what? The British navy would have kept him penned up in Ireland. He might have been the de facto ruler of Ireland and its grateful people; but Napoleon did not want the gratitude of a poor people. Generals of the Directory worked on commission, and liberating Ireland just wouldn’t pay.

There was a third idea, however, that promised Napoleon enough wealth and glory to sate his megalomania: invade Egypt. There was a military rationale for this plan. Egypt was the transit between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean; the trade and communication between Europe and the Orient passed along the Suez trail. (Yes, there was talk of building a canal.) A French army in Egypt would have a stranglehold on Britain’s link to India. Of course, there was also an economic incentive for invading Egypt; all that trade was quite lucrative. Finally, there seemed a political advantage as well. No one else seemed to rule Egypt. The country was a nominal province of the Ottoman Empire, but the weak Sultanate was unable to enforce its rule there. Egypt was in the hands of squabbling, medieval warlords–the Mamalukes. What could be more tempting than a rich and defenseless country?

He would invade Egypt with an army of 34,000 men. Never lacking confidence, Napoleon expected a glorious military victory but he also envisioned his campaign as a cultural triumph. He would rediscover Egypt and reintroduce a great civilization long forgotten. So, in addition to his military preparations,(which actually were inadequate; he overlooked the need for water canteens in a desert) he assembled several hundred scientists, historians and artists to accompany his expedition. While he conquered, they explored, discovered and illustrated–inspiring a fascination with ancient Egypt that continues to this day. Our very knowledge of hieroglyphics began with Napoleon, when some French soldiers dug up a very interesting stone at Rosetta, Egypt.

Such a massive undertaking could not have escaped the attention of the British. However, they assumed that the General of the Army of England was a literal title. The British navy was patrolling the English Channel and the western Mediterranean while the French fleet was heading toward Egypt. On the way, the French stopped at Malta to seize the island. By doing so, the French had finally revealed their whereabouts, and the British guessed Napoleon’s real intentions. The British navy sailed immediately to Alexandria and arrived before the French. In view of the French absence, however, the British now wondered where the French might be headed. Was Malta a feint and Napoleon was heading past Gibraltar to sail to England? So, the British fleet raced northwest while the French fleet lolled southeast to Alexandria.

However, the British had not reached Gibraltar, let alone Penzance, when they learned that the French had actually arrived at Alexandria. Turning around–again, His Majesty’s Ships now raced east. In the intervening month, the French army had disembarked in Alexandria, defeated the Mamalukes in a battle picturesquely near the Pyramids and now was in Cairo. The French fleet was at anchor at the mouth of the Nile, in Abukir Bay. Late in the afternoon of August 1, the British fleet attacked. The French were in a good defensive position, the ships aligned close to the shore and with the added protection of darkness. Who would attempt to navigate narrow gaps between the French ships, skirting the Egyptian shore in the dark? Did I mention that the British commander was Horatio Nelson? He could have assured you that it is easy to sail at night when you have burning French ships to light your way. Most of the French fleet was either sunk or captured, and the French army now was stranded in Egypt.

The Ottoman Empire did not grieve over the Mamalukes, but it did not consider the French control of Egypt as an improvement. Assured of British support, the Sultan declared war on France. Napoleon was not one to wait for an attack. He marched into Syria, expecting the conquest of that province would compel the Turks to cede Egypt to France. Although he had just 15,000 men, his campaign began with its customary success. The Turkish forces were equipped to fight a 16th century war. Napoleon even began to entertain the notion of taking Constantinople. However, his triumphal march did not get past the fortifications of Acre–in what is now northern Israel. The garrison’s Turkish gunners had the benefit of European training and the aided assistance of the British navy. Napoleon found himself outgunned and ill-prepared for a siege; worse, bubonic plague broke out in the French camp. Although unaccustomed to retreat, he had no choice.

Napoleon now realized that the Egyptian campaign would inevitably fail; however, no one else in France seemed aware of it. Bonaparte really should be considered one of the pioneers of public relations. He dictated communiques–press releases–telling the public exactly what he wanted it to believe. Napoleon was never shy about self-aggrandizement; every victory was magnified, any defeat was minimized if not omitted. (Despite its ability to do so, the British navy never bothered to impose a complete blockade on Egypt, so individual French ships could manage to go back and forth carrying Napoleon’s communiques.) The French public was convinced that the Egyptian campaign was a complete triumph. Ironically, however dubious or pyrrhic those victories, that was the only good news that the French public heard at the time.

With Napoleon in Egypt, Austria felt emboldened to resume the war. Aided by a Russian army, Austrian forces had recaptured most of Italy and now threatened France itself. Feeling endangered, the French wanted their best general back home to defend them. Since the public demanded it, Napoleon was willing to save France–and flee his hopeless situation in Egypt. Of course, he did not tell his abandoned army or even his second-in-command of his French itinerary. That was a surprise. Just as surprising was the fact that the French army held out for another two years, contending with Turks, Bedouins and disease. By 1801, the acting French commander was half-mad but he still managed to get generous terms of surrender. What was left of the army–its 17,000 ragged, sickly survivors–was repatriated to France. (The British did confiscate many of the ancient artifacts that the French had found; that is why the Rosetta Stone is at the British Museum.)

The survivors of the Egyptian campaign found that France had considerably changed in their absence. The corrupt, unpopular Republic had been replaced by a less corrupt, much more popular dictatorship–and guess who the dictator was. He had proclaimed the invasion of Egypt to be a glorious campaign–and who were they to disagree?

Father of the Bribe

Posted in General on May 15th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

If you had looked at Napoleon’s resume in early 1796, you would wonder why he had command of an army–even a third-rate one guarding the Italian border. The 26 year-old really did not have much of a war record. In 1794, as an artillery captain, he had distinguished himself in recapturing the French port of Toulon from French royalists and the British. France was so desperate for capable officers that he was subsequently promoted to brigadier general. Then, in 1795, as the security chief for the French government he did quell a riot in Paris. But what had he done to merit the command of L’Armee d’Italie? To be blunt, he had married the right woman.

Josephine was Napoleon’s first great conquest. She was lovely, charming, aristocratic, a leading figure in high society, and the mistress of the most important man in France. No, not Napoleon; That distinction–both political and venereal–belonged to Paul Barras. The leading politician in the fading days of France’s first republic, Barras (1755-1829) was a remarkable renegade. Born an aristocrat, he was a Jacobin when was it was popular, and Conservative when it was prudent. A lesser man–or a more ethical one–would have been guillotined by one faction or another. But not Barras, he survived and thrived. Now, he was the leader of the Directory, the five-man executive board that governed France. The position came with obvious perks–bribes and mistresses–but even venality has its responsibilities.

A glamourous–but aging–mistress like Josephine could not be just debauched and abandoned like a chambermaid. Dumping her required French finesse. But Barras had a retirement package for her: marriage to an ambitious little (literally) social-climber. He encouraged the match, telling Josephine that the brusque Corsican had a promising future (he did) and telling Napoleon that the lovely widow had a fortune (she didn’t). Even if Josephine’s wealth was a fable, she did have a glamour and a bearing that would elevate the social standing of any grasping upstart.

And there was a nice wedding present from Barras: the command of an army. As you know, Napoleon made good use of it. At this point, his resume became very impressive: the very definition of an over-achiever. In a few years, the new ruler of France would present Barras with a very thoughtful retirement present. Barras would be under house arrest but, having amassed a number of mansions, he could vary his confinement from one palace to another.

When Napoleon fell, the still versatile Barras was a royalist again. For some reason, the restored Bourbons did not trust Barras. He would never regain political power, but he was also spared any retaliation for his past duplicity and corruption. During his five years in power (1794-1799) he must have stolen a fortune; two decades later, he was still loaded. When it came to bribery, Barras was as much an overachiever as Napoleon ever was.

Would ABBA sing “Austerlitz” in France?

Posted in General, On This Day on December 2nd, 2006 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

Congratulations to any French friends (Catherine Deneuve and Carole Bouquet–if only they would let me) on the anniversary of Austerlitz.

Napoleon considered it his greatest victory; it certainly was his most obnoxious one.

To put it in Jeopardy terms, Napoleon allowed Russia and Austria to pick the categories AND ring in first. And he still smashed them.

Napoleon was inviting and begging the Russians and Austrians to attack; in fact, he seduced them. The French line had initially been situated on a plateau, an excellent defensive position that deterred the Austrians and the more competent Russian officers. So the accommodating Corsican withdrew his forces from the plateau. His enemies gratefully occupied the heights and advanced their lines.

Of course, the Austrians and Russians might have been a little wary about Napoleon’s gift. The eastern side of the plateau formed a formidable defense; however, the west side had the kind of gentle, charming slope that is advertised in real estate brochures. The French had little difficulty charging up the plateau, pushing the Russians and Austrians off the heights. Having smashed the center of the Allied line and regained the heights, the French were then very unkind to the exposed Russian left flank; it was driven into a lake.

The Russians and Austrians lost 27,000 men–one third of their army–at Austerlitz. The Emperor of Austria wrote his wife, “things did not go well today.”

Leo Tolstoy was a little more descriptive. His account of Austerlitz in “War and Peace” was probably longer than the battle.

Here is my abridged translation:

Prince Bolkonsky and Count Bezukhov were so preoccupied in a discussion of life, the soul and agricultural management that they had not noticed that their regiments had been massacred.

A furious General Kutuzov rode up to his esoteric officers and shrieked, “Why didn’t your troops occupy the defensive positions?”

Bezukhov waxed, “The Russian soul longs for suffering as a means of redemption. We gave the orders but those sturdy pure peasants stood in a stoic resignation.”

The exasperated commander asked, “Did you give the orders in Russian?”

Prince Bolkonsky shrugged, “Pourquoi?”

Real Estate Seminars, circa 1803

Posted in General, On This Day on October 20th, 2006 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

In 1803 Napoleon realized that even he needed more than charisma to wage war. Money was required. To raise it, Napoleon offered to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States.

American diplomats in Paris might have seen this embarrassing spectacle….

Napoleon: Everyone loves New Orleans. Imagine owning it for just ten million dollars!

Talleyrand: Just ten million! I knew that you were a megalomaniac but I didn’t think that you were crazy. What a bargain!

Napoleon: I’ll show you how crazy I am. What if I include the entire Louisiana Territory for an additional five million dollars? That’s right: 800,000 square miles for only $15,000,000!

Talleyrand: Just $15,000,000? I would have charged that much in bribes! What a bargain!

Napoleon: The entire Louisiana Territory for only $15,000,000. But only if you order now!

France could afford to be so generous. Of those 800,000 square miles, France actually controlled only ten percent of the territory: the area comprising modern Louisiana and Arkansas. The rest of that realm was based on tenuous claims: boundaries based on where French trappers had left fecal deposits.

In fact, Spain and Britain had claims to part of that territory and could have disputed the Purchase. However, Spain preferred not to offend Napoleon. For its part, England preferred to fight Napoleon in Europe rather than Thomas Jefferson in Minnesota. Of course, the native Americans also had claim to the territory; but no one was listening to them. So, in a transaction based on French pretension and American wishful thinking, the geographic dimensions of the United States doubled overnight.

The Purchase was made on April 30, 1803. As his many creditors could verify, Thomas Jefferson was an impulse buyer. The Senate actually had to approve the Purchase, and it finally did so on this day in 1803.

But it is unlikely that Napoleon waited to cash the check.