MANY HISTORIANS assert that the French failed at Borodino because Napoleon had a cold in his head; that if he had not had a cold the orders given by him before and during the battle would have been even more remarkable for their genius, and Russia would have been lost and the face of the world would have been changed. To historians, who can maintain that Russia was transformed at the will of one man—Peter the Great—and that France, from a republic, became an empire, and that the French army marched into Russia at the will of one man—Napoleon—the conclusion that Russia has remained a power because Napoleon had a bad cold on the 26th of August may seem indisputable and convincing. Had it depended on Napoleon's will to fight, or not to fight, at Borodino, or had it depended on his will whether he gave this order or that, it is evident that a cold, affecting the manifestation of his will, might be the saving of Russia, and consequently the valet, who forgot to put on Napoleon's waterproof boots on the 24th, would be the saviour of Russia. On that method of reasoning such a deduction is inevitable; as inevitable as the contention which Voltaire maintains in jest (unconscious what he was ridiculing) that the Massacre of St. Bartholomew was due to an attack of dyspepsia from which Charles IX was suffering. But for minds that cannot admit that Russia was transformed at the will of one man—Peter the Great—and the French empire was created, and the war with Russia begun, at the will of one man—Napoleon—such a contention will seem not merely unsound and irrational, but contrary to the whole nature of humanity. The question, What constitutes the cause of historical events? will suggest to them another answer, resting on the idea that the course of earthly events is predestined from on high, depends on the combination of all the wills of the men taking part in those events, and that the predominant influence of Napoleon in those events is purely external and fictitious.
Strange at first sight as appears the proposition that the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, the order for which was given by Charles IX., was not the result of his will, and that it was only in his fancy that the command he had given was the cause of it, and that the Borodino slaughter of eighty thousand men was not due to Napoleon's will (though he gave the order for the commencement of the battle), and that it was only his fancy that it was his doing, strange as this proposition appears, yet human dignity, that tells us that every one of us is neither more nor less a man than Napoleon, bids us admit that solution of the question, and historical researches abundantly confirm the proposition.
At the battle of Borodino Napoleon did not fire at any one, nor kill any one. All that was done by his soldiers. Therefore it was not he who killed those men. The soldiers of the French army went out to slay their fellow-men at Borodino, not owing to Napoleon's commands, but through their own desire to do so. The whole army—French, Italians, Germans, Poles—hungry, ragged, and exhausted by the march, felt at the sight of an army, barring their way to Moscow: the wine is drawn, it must be drunk. Had Napoleon forbidden them at that point to fight the Russians, they would have killed him, and have proceeded to fight the Russians, because it was inevitable for them.
When they heard Napoleon's proclamation, offering them as consolation for maiming and death the reminder that posterity would say that they had been at the battle before Moscow, they shouted, “Vive l'Empereur,” just as they shouted “Vive l'Empereur” at the sight of the picture of the little boy playing cup and ball with the earth, and just as they shouted “Vive l'Empereur” at every absurdity that was said. There was nothing left for them to do but to shout “Vive l'Empereur!” and to fight so as to get food and rest as conquerors in Moscow. Therefore it was not owing to Napoleon's commands that they killed their fellow-men.
And it was not Napoleon who ordained the course of the battle, because none of his instructions were put into execution, and he knew nothing of what was passing before him. Therefore the manner in which these men slaughtered one another did not depend on Napoleon's will, but proceeded independently of him, from the wills of the hundreds of thousands of men who took part in the affair. It only seemed to Napoleon that all this was due to his will. And therefore the question whether Napoleon had or had not a cold in his head is of no more interest to history than the cold of the lowest soldier of the commissariat.
The contention of some writers, that Napoleon's cold was the reason of his previous instructions and commands during the battle being weaker than usual, is completely groundless.
The instructions that have been reproduced here are by no means inferior, are indeed superior, to many similar arrangements by which he had gained victories in the past. His supposed instructions during the day were also in no way inferior to the commands he had given in previous battles, but were much the same as usual. But these instructions are supposed to be inferior, simply because Borodino was the first battle in which Napoleon was not victorious. The finest and profoundest combinations seem very poor, and every military student can criticise them with a consequential air, when the battle has not been won by means of them; and the stupidest combinations will seem exceedingly ingenious, and serious writers will fill volumes in proving their excellence, when the battle that followed chances to have been a victory.
The plan composed by Weierother at Austerlitz was a model of perfection in its own line, but it has yet been condemned, and condemned for its very perfection, for its over-minuteness in detail.
At Borodino Napoleon played his part as the representative of supreme power as well, or even better, than he had done at previous battles. He did nothing likely to hinder the progress of the battle; he yielded to the most sensible advice; he was not confused, did not contradict himself, did not lose his presence of mind, nor run away from the field of battle, but with his great tact and military experience, he performed calmly and with dignity his role of appearing to be in supreme control of it all.