Chateaubriand's memoirs, XX, 10

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XX, 9 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XX, 11


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XX, chapter 10
The Fifth Coalition – The Capture of Venice – The Battle of Essling – The Battle of Wagram – Peace signed in the Emperor of Austria’s palace – Divorce – Napoleon marries Marie-Louise – The birth of the King of Rome



On the 9th of April 1809, the Fifth Coalition between England, Austria and Spain, was declared, silently relying on the discontent of other nations. The Austrians, complaining of the violation of previous treaties, all at once crossed the River Inn at Braunau: they have been reproached for their tardiness, they wanted to do a Napoleon; but speed was not their style. Happy to have left Spain, Bonaparte hastened to Bavaria; he set himself at the head of the Bavarians without waiting for the French: any soldiers would do for him. At Abensberg, he defeated Archduke Louis, at Eckmühl Archduke Charles: he cuts the Austrian Army in two, and achieves the passage of the Salza.

He enters Vienna. On the 21st and 22nd of May the dreadful affair of Aspern-Essling takes place. The account of Archduke Charles reports that, on the first day, two hundred and eighty eight Austrian cannon fired fifty-one thousand rounds, and that, on the next day, more than four hundred cannon took part on both sides. Marshal Lannes was mortally wounded. Bonaparte spoke to him and then forgot him: human relationships cool as quickly as the cannonball that strikes them.

The Battle of Wagram (5th-6th of July 1809) continues the run of battles executed in Germany: Bonaparte deploys all his genius there. General César de Laville, ordered to prevent disaster striking the left flank, finds him on the right flank directing Marshal Davout’s attack. Napoleon immediately returns to the left flank and repairs the damage incurred by Masséna. It was then, at the moment when the battle was thought lost, that, alone judging to the contrary from the enemy manoeuvres, he shouted: ‘The battle is won!’ He sets his mind against a half-hearted victory; he brings things back to the boil as Caesar dragged his astonished veterans back to the fight by the throat. Nine hundred mouths of bronze roar; the plain and the cornfields are in flames; whole villages vanish; the action lasts twelve hours. In one charge alone, Lauriston trots towards the enemy at the head of a hundred cannon. Four days afterwards they gathered up, amongst the wheat, soldiers who had died in the sunlight beneath the trampled crop, lying there, sticky with blood: maggots had already infested the wounds of the riper corpses.

In my youth, people read commentaries by Folard and Guischardt, Tempelhof and Lloyd, on Frederick II’s campaigns; they studied ordre profond and ordre mince; on my second-lieutenant’s desk I manoeuvred plenty of little squares, of wood. Military science changed like everything else as a result of the Revolution; Bonaparte invented war on a grand scale, the victories of the Republic having furnished him with the idea through their mass requisitions. He despised fortresses, which he was content to ignore; adventured into countries he had invaded, and won everything by dint of battle. He was never concerned with retreat; he travelled straight ahead like those Roman roads that cross mountains and precipices without a detour. He moved all his forces to one point, and then gathered in an arc the isolated corps whose lines he had scattered. This manoeuvre which suited him was in accord with French aggression; but it produced scant success with less impetuous and agile troops. Towards the end of his career he also ordered artillery charges and took redoubts with cavalry. What was the result? In leading France into war, Europe was taught how to march: it was no more than a question of increasing the means; masses counter-balanced masses. Instead of a hundred thousand men, six hundred thousand were employed; instead of a hundred cannon, five hundred were used: there is no increase in skill; it is merely on a larger scale. Turenne knew as much as Bonaparte, but he was not absolute master and had not forty million men at his disposal. Sooner or later we must return to the civilised warfare Moreau still knew, warfare which leaves nations intact while a small number of soldiers carry out their duty; we must revisit the art of retreat, the defence of a country by means of fortresses, and patient manoeuvres which cost time but spare men. Napoleon’s gigantic battles are beyond the bounds of glory; the eye cannot embrace those fields of carnage which, eventually, fail to produce a result proportional to their calamities. Europe, barring unforeseen events, will be weary of war for many a long year. Napoleon has killed war by exaggerating it: our Algerian war is merely an experimental training ground created for our soldiers.

Among the dead, on the field of Wagram, Napoleon showed the impassibility that both belonged to him and that he affected when he appeared before others; he spoke coldly or more often he repeated his habitual phrase in such circumstances: ‘This is a mighty consummation!’

When wounded officers were mentioned to him, he replied: ‘They are not present.’ If military virtue teaches various virtues, it weakens others: too humane a soldier cannot accomplish his task; the sight of blood and tears, the suffering, the cries of pain, delaying him at every step, would destroy within him what created the Caesars; a race, after all, that one would happily do without.

After the battle of Wagram an armistice was agreed at Znaïm. The Austrians, according to our bulletins, retired in good order and left not one mounted cannon behind them. Bonaparte, in possession of Schonbrünn, worked there on the peace. ‘On the 13th of October,’ says the Duke of Cadore, ‘I came to Vienna to work with the Emperor. After a few moments discussion, he said to me: “I am going to the review; stay in my office; you can draw up that note and I’ll read it after the review.” I stayed in his office with Monsieur de Menéval his private secretary; he soon returned. – “Has the Prince of Lichtenstein made known to you,” Napoleon said to me, ‘that it has often been suggested to him that I should be assassinated?” – “Yes, Sire; he expressed the horror with which he rejected such proposals.” – “Well, Someone is here to try! Follow me.” I went into the salon with him. There were several people looking very agitated, surrounding a young man from eighteen to twenty years old, of a fine, quite mild appearance, proclaiming a kind of candour, who alone seemed to be perfectly calm. It was the assassin. He was interrogated with extreme gentleness by Napoleon himself, General Rapp serving as interpreter. I will only record those of his replies which struck me favourably.

“Why do you wish to assassinate me?” – “Because there can be no peace for Germany while you are alive.” – “What inspired you to attempt this?” – “Love of my country.” – “Have you discussed it with anyone else?” – “I was conscience-bound.” – Do you realise the danger to which you exposed yourself?” – “I realise it; but I would be happy to die for my country.” – “You own to religious principles; do you think that God authorises assassination?” – “I hope that God will forgive me on account of my motive.” – “Do they teach that doctrine in the schools you have attended?” – “A large number of those who attended them with me are animated by these sentiments and disposed to devote their life to their country’s good.” – “What will you do if I set you at liberty?” – “I will kill you.”

The shocking naivety of these replies, the cold and unshakeable intent they indicated, and that fanaticism, so resolute in the face of human fear, made an impression on Napoleon that I regarded as the more profound the more cold-blooded it appeared. He made everyone retire, and I alone stayed with him. After a few comments on a fanaticism so blind and so intellectual, he said to me: “It is essential to make peace.”’ This account by the Duc de Cadore deserves to be quoted in its entirety.

The nations commenced to levy troops; to Bonaparte they heralded enemies more powerful than kings; the resolution of one man among a people saved Austria then. However Napoleon’s fate had not yet averted its gaze. On the 14th of August 1809, in the Austrian Emperor’s own palace, he made peace; on that occasion a daughter of the Caesars was the palm offered; but Josephine was crowned, and Marie-Louise was not: with his first wife’s departure, the virtue of the divine unction seemed to leave the conqueror. I might have seen in Notre-Dame de Paris the same ceremony which I saw in the cathedral at Rheims; with the exception of Napoleon the same people were present.

One of the hidden actors who took most part in the internal workings of this matter was my friend Alexandre de Laborde, wounded in the émigré ranks, and honoured with the cross of Maria Theresa for his wounds.

On the 11th of March the Prince de Neuchâtel as proxy married the Archduchess Marie-Louise, The latter left for France, accompanied by the Princess Murat: Marie-Louise was adorned en route with royal emblems. She arrived at Strasbourg on the 22nd of March and on the 29th at the Chateau of Compiègne where Bonaparte was waiting for her. The civil marriage took place at Saint-Cloud on the 1st of April; on the 2nd Cardinal Fesch gave the nuptial blessing to the newly-weds in the Louvre. Bonaparte taught this second wife to be unfaithful to him, as the first had been, by deceiving himself in his own bed through his intimacy with Marie-Louise before the celebration of their religious marriage; a majestic contempt for royal morality and holy law which did not augur well.

All seemed complete; Bonaparte had obtained the one thing he lacked: like Philippe-Auguste allying himself with Isabelle de Hainault, he linked the most recent of races to the race of great kings; the past was joined to the future. Gazing backwards or forwards, he is from now on the master of the centuries if he can only remain at the summit; yet he has the power to halt the world, but not the power to halt himself: he will go on until he has won the last crown that pays the price for all the others, the crown of misfortune.

On the 20th of March 1811, the Archduchess Marie-Louise, gave birth to a son: the alleged penalty for the previous felicities. Of this son, hatched, like Arctic birds, under a midnight sun, only a sad waltz remains, composed by himself at Schonbrünn, and played on the street-organs of Paris, round his father’s palace.