Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXI, 8

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XXI, 7 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXII, 1


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXI, chapter 8
A verdict on the Russian Campaign – The last bulletin of the Grand Army – Bonaparte’s return to Paris – The Senate Address



During the whole of that campaign Bonaparte was inferior to his generals, and particularly Marshal Ney. The excuses given for Bonaparte’s flight are inadmissible: the proof is there, for his departure, which was supposed to save everything, saved nothing. His leaving, far from repairing the damage, added to it and hastened the dissolution of the Rhine Federation.

The twenty-ninth and last bulletin of the Grand Army, dated from Malodeczno on the 3rd of December 1812, which arrived in Paris on the 18th, only preceded Napoleon by two days: it astonished France, however far it may have been from the frank expression it has been praised for; striking contradictions were noted in it and failed to hide the truth which emerged throughout. At St Helena (as we have seen above), Bonaparte expressed himself more honestly: his revelations could no longer compromise a crown already fallen from his brow. Yet it is still essential to listen for a moment to the havoc-maker:

‘The army,’ he says in the bulletin of the 3rd of December 1812, ‘which was so splendid on the 6th, was quite altered by the 14th. Almost without cavalry, artillery, or transports, we could not detect our own troops a mile away………………………………………………………………..........

In all these manoeuvres, the Emperor always marched in the midst of his Guard, the cavalry being commanded by a Marshal, the Duke of Istria, and the infantry by the Duke of Dantzig. His Majesty was satisfied with the fine spirit shown by his Guard; it has always been prepared to take itself to wherever circumstances required; but the circumstances were always such that its mere presence sufficed, and in fact it did not have to be employed.

The Prince of Neuchâtel, the Marshal in Chief, the Master of Horse and all the aides-de-camp and army officers of the Emperor’s household, always accompanied His Majesty.

Our cavalry was so lacking in mounts, that it was necessary to gather together the officers who still had a horse, in order to form four companies of five hundred men each. The generals carried out the function of captains, and colonels those of subalterns. This dedicated squadron, commanded by General Grouchy, and under the orders of the King of Naples, did not lose sight of the Emperor at any time. His Majesty’s health has never been better.’

What a tale of victories! Bonaparte had once asked the Directors: ‘What have you done to those hundred thousand Frenchmen all my companions in glory? They are dead!’ France might now have asked Bonaparte: ‘What have you done in a single blow to the five hundred thousand soldiers of the Niemen, all my children and allies? They are dead!’

After the loss of those hundred thousand Republican soldiers whom Napoleon mourned, the country at least was saved: the final results of the Russian Campaign led to the invasion of France and the loss of all that our glorious sacrifices had accumulated in the previous twenty years.

Bonaparte had been constantly guarded by a dedicated squadron which did not lose sight of him at any time; compensation for the three hundred thousand lives lost: but why had nature not tempered them as finely? They should have retained their wonted ways. Could that living cannon-fodder merit its movements being as religiously looked after as those of His Majesty?

The bulletin concludes, as do several others, with those words: ‘The health of His Majesty has never been better.’

Families, dry your tears: Napoleon is feeling fine.

Following this account, can be read this official note in the journals: ‘This is a historic narrative of the first order; Xenephon and Caesar wrote thus, the one in his Retreat of the Ten Thousand, the other in his Commentaries.’ What a ludicrous academic comparison! But, leaving aside the unpaid literary advertising, is one to take satisfaction in the fact that the appalling calamites Napoleon caused furnished the occasion to display his talents as a writer! Nero set fire to Rome, and sang of the burning of Troy. We have reached the barbarous contempt of a flattery that disinters Xenephon and Caesar from memory, in order to offend France’s eternal sorrow.

The Senate (Conservateur) rushes forward: ‘The Senate,’ says Lacépède, ‘hastens to the foot of the throne of Your Royal and Imperial Majesty to do homage, in congratulation for the happy arrival of Your Majesty amongst his people. The Senate, the highest council of the Emperor, and whose authority exists only while the monarch requires it and renders it in effect, is established for the preservation of this monarchy and the heirs to your throne, of our fourth dynasty. France and posterity will find it, in all circumstances, loyal to that sacred duty, and all its members will be forever ready to die for the defence of this palladium of national safety and prosperity.’ The members of the Senate have since proven it marvellously by decreeing Napoleon’s deposition!

The Emperor replies: ‘Senators, what you have said is most agreeable to me. I have at heart the POWER AND GLORY of France; but our first thoughts are FOR ALL that might perpetuate internal peace…for THIS THRONE with which FROM NOW ON is linked the destiny of our country…I have asked Providence for a CERTAIN NUMBER of years…I have considered what has been achieved at different epochs; I will continue to think of this.’

The natural historian of reptiles, by daring to congratulate Napoleon publicly on his good fortune, is however frightened of his own courage; he has a fear of existing; he needs to say that the authority of the Senate only exists while the monarch requires it and renders it in effect. So great is the fear of an independent Senate!

Bonaparte, on St Helena, making excuses for his conduct, says: ‘Is it the Russians who destroyed me? No, it was false reports, foolish intrigues, treason, stupidity, plenty of things, in short, that will perhaps one day be known and which may palliate or justify the two great mistakes, in diplomacy and in war, which people have the right to charge me with.’

Faults which only lead to the loss of a battle, or a province, allow excuses to be made in arcane words, whose explanation is left to the future; but faults which overthrow a society, and subject a nation’s freedom to the yoke, are not erased by a humbling of pride.

After so many disasters and heroic events, it is terrible in the end to have no more to choose between on reading the Senate’s words than horror or contempt.