THE TEARFUL SPECTACLE of the battlefield, heaped with dead and wounded, in conjunction with the heaviness of his head, the news that some twenty generals he knew well were among the killed or wounded, and the sense of the impotence of his once mighty army, made an unexpected impression on Napoleon, who was usually fond of looking over the dead and wounded, proving thereby, as he imagined, his dauntless spirit. On that day, the awful spectacle of the battlefield overcame this dauntless spirit, which he looked upon as a merit and a proof of greatness. He hastened away from the field of battle and returned to Shevardino. With a yellow, puffy, heavy face, dim eyes, a red nose, and a husky voice, he sat on a camp-stool, looking down and involuntarily listening to the sounds of the firing. With sickly uneasiness he awaited the end of this action, in which he considered himself the prime mover, though he could not have stopped it. The personal, human sentiment for one brief moment gained the ascendant over the artificial phantasm of life, that he had served so long. He imagined in his own case the agonies and death he had seen on the battlefield. The heaviness of his head and chest reminded him of the possibility for him too of agony and death. At that minute he felt no longing for Moscow, for victory or for glory. (What need had he for more glory?) The one thing he desired now was repose, tranquillity, and freedom. But when he was on the height above Semyonovskoye, the officer in command of the artillery proposed to him to bring several batteries up on to that height to increase the fire on the Russian troops before Knyazkovo. Napoleon assented, and gave orders that word should be brought him of the effect produced by this battery.
An adjutant came to say that by the Emperor's orders two hundred guns had been directed upon the Russians, but that they were still holding their ground.
“Our fire is mowing them down in whole rows, but they stand firm,” said the adjutant.
“They want more of it!” said Napoleon in his husky voice.
“Sire?” repeated the adjutant, who had not caught the words.
“They want even more!” Napoleon croaked hoarsely, frowning. “Well, let them have it then.”
Already, without orders from him, what he did not really want was being done, and he gave the order to do it simply because he thought the order was expected of him. And he passed back again into his old artificial world, peopled by the phantoms of some unreal greatness, and again (as a horse running in a rolling wheel may imagine it is acting on its own account) he fell back into submissively performing the cruel, gloomy, irksome, and inhuman part destined for him.
And not for that hour and day only were the mind and conscience darkened in that man, on whom the burden of all that was being done lay even more heavily than on all the others who took part in it. Never, down to the end of his life, had he the least comprehension of good, of beauty, of truth, of the significance of his own acts, which were too far opposed to truth and goodness, too remote from everything human for him to be able to grasp their significance. He could not disavow his own acts, that were lauded by half the world, and so he was forced to disavow truth and goodness and everything human.
Not on that day only, as he rode about the battlefield, piled with corpses and mutilated men (the work, as he supposed, of his will) he reckoned as he gazed at them how many Russians lay there for each Frenchman, and cheated himself into finding matter for rejoicing in the belief that there were five Russians for every Frenchman. Not on that day only he wrote to Paris that “le champ de bataille a été superbe,” because there were fifty thousand corpses on it. Even in St. Helena, in the peaceful solitude where he said he intended to devote his leisure to an account of the great deeds he had done, he wrote:
“The Russian war ought to have been the most popular of modern times: it was the war of good sense and real interests, of the repose and security of all: it was purely pacific and conservative.
“It was for the great cause, the end of uncertainties and the beginning of security. A new horizon, new labours were unfolding, all full of welfare and prosperity for all. The European system was established; all that remained was to organise it.
“Satisfied on these great points and tranquil everywhere, I too should have had my congress and my holy alliance. These are ideas stolen from me. In this assembly of great sovereigns, we could have treated of our interests like one family and have reckoned, as clerk with master, with the peoples.
“Europe would soon in that way have made in fact but one people, and every one, travelling all over it, would always have found himself in the common fatherland. I should have required all the rivers to be open for the navigation of all; the seas to be common to all; and the great standing armies to be reduced henceforth simply to the bodyguard of the sovereigns.
“Returning to France, to the bosom of the great, strong, magnificent, tranquil, and glorious fatherland, I should have proclaimed its frontiers immutable, all future war purely defensive, all fresh aggrandisement anti-national. I should have associated my son in the empire; my dictatorship would have been over, and his constitutional reign would have begun…
“Paris would have been the capital of the world, and the French the envy of the nations!…
“My leisure then and my old age would have been consecrated, in company with the Empress, and during the royal apprenticeship of my son, to visiting in leisurely fashion with our own horses, like a genuine country couple, every corner of the empire, receiving complaints, redressing wrongs, scattering monuments and benefits on all sides.”
He, predestined by Providence to the gloomy, slavish part of executioner of the peoples, persuaded himself that the motive of his acts had been the welfare of the peoples, and that he could control the destinies of millions, and make their prosperity by the exercise of his power.
“Of the four hundred thousand men who crossed the Vistula,” he wrote later of the Russian war, “half were Austrians, Prussians, Saxons, Poles, Bavarians, Würtembergers, Mecklenburgers, Spaniards, Italians, Neapolitans. The Imperial army, properly so-called, was one third composed of Dutch, Belgians, inhabitants of the Rhineland, Piedmontese, Swiss, Genevese, Tuscans, Romans, inhabitants of the thirty-second military division, of Bremen, Hamburg, etc. It reckoned barely a hundred and forty thousand men speaking French. The Russian expedition cost France itself less than fifty thousand men. The Russian army in the retreat from Vilna to Moscow in the different battles lost four times as many men as the French army. The fire in Moscow cost the lives of one hundred thousand Russians, dead of cold and want in the woods; lastly, in its march from Moscow to the Oder, the Russian army, too, suffered from the inclemency of the season: it only reckoned fifty thousand men on reaching Vilna, and less than eighteen thousand at Kalisch.”
He imagined that the war with Russia was entirely due to his will, and the horror of what was done made no impression on his soul. He boldly assumed the whole responsibility of it all; and his clouded intellect found justification in the fact that among the hundreds of thousands of men who perished, there were fewer Frenchmen than Hessians and Bavarians.