NAPOLEON BEGAN THE WAR with Russia because he could not help going to Dresden, being dazzled by the homage paid him there, putting on the Polish uniform, yielding to the stimulating influence of a June morning, and giving way to an outburst of fury in the presence of Kurakin and afterwards of Balashev.
Alexander refused all negotiations because he felt himself personally insulted. Barclay de Tolly did his utmost to command the army in the best way possible, so as to do his duty and gain the reputation of a great general. Rostov charged the French because he could not resist the temptation to gallop across the level plain. And all the innumerable persons who took part in the war acted similarly, in accordance with their personal peculiarities, habits, circumstances, and aims. They were all impelled by fear or vanity, enjoyment, indignation, or national consideration, supposing that they knew what they were about and that they were acting independently, while they were all the involuntary tools of history and were working out a result concealed from themselves but comprehensible to us. Such is the invariable fate of all practical leaders, and the higher their place in the social hierarchy, the less free they are.
Now the leading men of 1812 have long left their places; their personal interests have vanished, leaving no trace, and nothing remains before us but the historical results of the time.
But once let us admit that the people of Europe under Napoleon's leadership had to make their way into the heart of Russia and there to perish, and all the self-contradictory, meaningless, cruel actions of the men who took part in this war become intelligible to us.
Providence compelled all those men in striving for the attainment of their personal aims to combine in accomplishing one immense result, of which no one individual man (not Napoleon, not Alexander, still less any one taking practical part in the campaign) had the slightest inkling.
Now it is clear to us what was the cause of the destruction of the French army in 1812. No one disputes that the cause of the loss of Napoleon's French forces was, on one hand, their entering at too late a season upon a winter march in the heart of Russia without sufficient preparation; and on the other, the character the war had assumed from the burning of Russian towns and the hatred the enemy aroused in the peasantry. But obvious as it seems now, no one at the time foresaw that this was the only means by which the best army in the world, eight hundred thousand strong, led by the best of generals, could be defeated in a conflict with the inexperienced Russian army of half the strength, led by inexperienced generals. Not only was this utterly unforeseen, but every effort indeed was being continually made on the Russian side to hinder the one means that could save Russia; and in spite of the experience and so-called military genius of Napoleon, every effort was made on the French side to push on to Moscow at the end of the summer, that is to do the very thing bound to bring about their ruin.
In historical works on the year 1812, the French writers are very fond of saying that Napoleon was aware of the danger of lengthening out his line, that he sought a decisive engagement, that his marshals advised him to stay at Smolensk, and similar statements to show that even at the time the real danger of the campaign was seen. The Russian historians are still fonder of declaring that from the beginning of the campaign there existed a plan of Scythian warfare by leading Napoleon on into the heart of Russia. And this plan is ascribed by some writers to Pfuhl, by others to some Frenchman, and by others to Barclay de Tolly; while other writers give the credit of this supposed scheme to the Emperor Alexander himself, supporting their view by documents, proclamations, and letters, in which such a course of action certainly is hinted at. But all these hints at foreseeing what actually did happen on the French as well as on the Russian side are only conspicuous now because the event justified them. If the event had not come to pass, these hints would have been forgotten, as thousands and millions of suggestions and suppositions are now forgotten that were current at the period, but have been shown by time to be unfounded and so have been consigned to oblivion. There are always so many presuppositions as to the cause of every event that, however the matter ends, there are always people who will say: “I said at the time that it would be so”: quite oblivious of the fact that among the numerous suppositions they made there were others too suggesting just the opposite course of events.
The notion that Napoleon was aware of the danger of extending his line, and that the Russians had a scheme for drawing the enemy into the heart of Russia, obviously belong to the same category; and only historians with a great bias can ascribe such reflections to Napoleon and his marshals, or such plans to the Russian generals. All the facts are directly opposed to such a view. Far from desiring to lure the French into the heart of Russia, the Russians did their utmost to arrest their progress throughout the war from the time they crossed the frontier. And far from dreading the extension of his line of communications, Napoleon rejoiced at every step forward as a triumph, and did not seek pitched battles as eagerly as he had done in his previous campaigns.
At the very beginning of the campaign, our armies were divided up, and the sole aim for which we strove was to unite them; though there was no benefit to be derived from uniting them if our object was to retreat and draw the enemy into the heart of the country. The Emperor was with the army to inspire it not to yield an inch of Russian soil and on no account to retreat. An immense camp was fortified at Drissa in accordance with Pfuhl's plan, and it was not proposed to retreat further. The Tsar reprimanded the commander-in-chief for every retreat. The Tsar can never have anticipated the burning of Moscow, or even the enemy's presence at Smolensk, and when the armies had been reunited, the Tsar was indignant at the taking and burning of Smolensk without a general engagement having been fought before its walls. Such was the Tsar's feeling, but the Russian generals, and the whole Russian people, were even more indignant at the idea of our men retreating.
Napoleon, after dividing up the army, moved on into the heart of the country, letting slip several opportunities of an engagement. In August he was in Smolensk and thinking of nothing but advancing further, though, as we see now, that advance meant inevitable ruin.
The fact shows perfectly clearly that Napoleon foresaw no danger in the advance on Moscow, and that Alexander and the Russian generals did not dream at the time of luring Napoleon on, but aimed at the very opposite. Napoleon was drawn on into Russia, not through any plans—no one dreamed of the possibility of it—but simply through the complex play of intrigues and desires and motives of the actors in the war, who had no conception of what was to come and of what was the sole means of saving Russia. Everything came to pass by chance. The army was split up early in the campaign. We tried to effect a junction between the parts with the obvious intention of fighting a battle and checking the enemy's advance; and in this effort to effect a junction, avoiding a battle with a far stronger enemy, we were forced to retreat at an acute angle, and so drew the French after us to Smolensk. But it is not enough to say that both parts of the army retreated on lines inclined at an acute angle, because the French were advancing between the two armies. The angle was made the more acute and we retreated further because Barclay de Tolly, an unpopular German, was detested by Bagration, and the latter, in command of the second half of the army, did his utmost to delay a junction with Barclay de Tolly in order to avoid being under his command. Bagration delayed the junction of the armies, though this was the chief aim of all the authorities, because he believed that he would expose his army to danger on the march, and that it would be more advantageous for him to retreat more to the left and the south, annoying the enemy on the flank and rear, and reinforcing his army in Ukraine. And he believed this, because he did not want to put himself under the command of the German Barclay, who was his junior in the service, and personally disliked by him.
The Emperor accompanied the army in order to excite its patriotic ardour; but his presence and inability to decide on any course of action and the immense number of counsellors and plans that swarmed about him, nullified all action on the part of the first army, and that army too had to retreat.
At the camp at Drissa it was proposed to take a stand. But the energy of Paulucci, scheming to become a leading general, affected Alexander; and Pfuhl's whole plan was abandoned, and the scheme of campaign intrusted to Barclay. But as the latter did not inspire complete confidence, his power too was limited. The armies were split up, there was no unity, no supreme command: Barclay was unpopular. But on one side the confusion and division and unpopularity of the German commander-in-chief led to vacillation and to avoiding a battle, which would have been inevitable had the armies been united and any one but Barclay in command of them. And on the other hand, it all led to a growing indignation with the Germans and a growing fervour of patriotism.
At last the Tsar left the army, and, as the only suitable excuse to get rid of him, the happy suggestion was made that he must rouse up the people in the capitals to wage the war on a truly national scale. And the Tsar's visit to Moscow did in fact treble the forces of the Russian army. The Tsar left the army in the hope that the commander-in-chief would be able to act alone, and that more decisive measures would be taken. But the commander's position became weaker and even more difficult. Bennigsen, the Grand Duke, and a swarm of adjutant generals, remained with the army to watch over the actions of the commander-in-chief, and to urge him to greater activity; and Barclay, feeling less than ever free to act under the watchful gaze of all these “eyes of the Tsar,” became still more cautious and anxious to avoid a pitched battle, and clung to a prudent inaction. The Grand Duke hinted at treachery, and demanded a general engagement. Lubomirsky, Bronnitsky, Vlotsky, and others of the same sort, helped to swell the clamour to such a point that Barclay, on the pretext of sending papers to the Tsar in Petersburg, got rid of the Polish generals, and entered into open conflict with Bennigsen and the Grand Duke.
In Smolensk, in spite of Bagration's wishes to the contrary, the armies were at last united.
Bagration drove up in his carriage to the house occupied by Barclay. Barclay put on his official scarf, and came out to greet and to present his report to his senior officer, Bagration. Bagration, to rival his magnanimity, acknowledged Barclay as his superior officer, in spite of his own seniority; but he was less in accord with him than ever. At the Tsar's command, he sent reports personally to him, and wrote to Araktcheev: “My sovereign's will is law, but I can do nothing acting with the minister” (so he called Barclay). “For God's sake, send me somewhere else, if only in command of a regiment, for here I can do nothing. The head-quarters are crammed full of Germans, there's no living here for a Russian, and no making head or tail of anything. I supposed I was serving my sovereign and my country, but in practice it comes to serving Barclay. I must own I do not care to.”
The swarm of Bronnitskys, Wintzengerodes, and others like them, embittered the feud between the commanders still further, and there was less unity than ever. Preparations were made to attack the French before Smolensk. A general was sent to review the position. This general, detesting Barclay, visits a friend of his own, a commander of a corps, and after spending the day with him, returns and condemns on every point the proposed field of battle without having seen it.
While disputes and intrigues were going on as to the suitable spot for a battle, and while we were looking for the French and mistaking their line of advance, the French fell upon Nevyerovsky's division, and advanced upon the walls of Smolensk itself.
We were surprised into having to fight at Smolensk to save our communications. A battle was fought. Thousands were slain on both sides.
Smolensk was abandoned against the will of the Tsar and the whole people. But Smolensk was burnt by its own inhabitants, who had been deceived by their governor. And those ruined inhabitants, after setting an example to the rest of Russia, full of their losses, and burning with hatred of the enemy, moved on to Moscow. Napoleon advances; we retreat; and so the very result is attained that is destined to overthrow Napoleon.