Friday, 31 December 2010

1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow

Spending an extremely cold Christmas in Norway where temperatures never rose much above -10C, what could be more appropriate than to read an account of the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812?

What an excellent if harrowing read it is.

Based on numerous accounts of those who experienced it, Zamoyski paints a detailed picture of human misery on a scale which has thankfully rarely been witnessed in history.

A number of images and impressions stay with me:

• the way in which Napoleon almost blundered into the campaign - his aim was to bring the Czar to the negotiating table and to break Russia's alliance with Britain: he assumed that the presence of such a large army assembled on Russia's borders would make the Czar sue for peace.

• Napoleon's pleasure at receiving a portrait of the infant King of Rome which he showed to his entourage and then placed outside his tent, where the soldiers formed a queue to see it;

• the disappointment of Moscow: the French entering Moscow and finding nobody to formally surrender the city - totally contrary to the custom of warfare - and then the Russians setting fire to it, and Napoleon having to leave the city until the fire was under control.

• Napoleon working late into the night in the Kremlin corresponding with his Government in Paris and insisting that lamps were put in the windows to show his soldiers that he was working;

• the French army leaving Moscow, its soldiers borne down with books, pictures, gold, silver and other valuable items which they imagined would make their fortunes back in France;

• and of course the extreme cold, the lack of food and the shortage of forage for the horses without which the army could not fight effectively nor move its supplies.

• and, on a lighter note, Napoleon, his Marshalls and his old guard sliding down the approach to Dubrovna on their bottoms, because it was too slippery to stand up and walk down.

Amidst the horrendous conditions the soldiers remained remarkably loyal to Napoleon, and some talked of joining the Russians in an attack on India at the end of the campaign.

As the army retreated this loyalty was not significantly eroded. Zamoyski quotes a French sergeant who watched as two grenadiers went looking for dry wood for Napoleon:
Everyone eagerly proffered the best pieces he had, and even those who were dying raised their heads to whisper:"Take it for the Emperor!" (1)

The Dutch General, Dedem de Gelder, who did not like Napoleon, was nevertheless impressed by the way he dealt with the adversity:
I have to do justice to this man hitherto so spoilt by fortune, who had never yet known serious setbacks; he was calm, without anger, but without resignation; I believed he would be great in adversity, and that idea reconciled me to him.. I saw then the man who contemplates disaster and recognises all the difficulties of his position, but whose soul is in no way crushed and who says to himself: "This is failure, I have to quit, but I shall be back. (2)

As Zamoyski concludes, the catastrophic failure of the Moscow campaign punctured the aura of invincibility that had hitherto surrounded Napoleon. Although he waged a brilliant defensive campaign in 1813-1814, the odds were hitherto stacked against him.
1. Quoted in Adam Zamoyski, 1812 Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow (Harper 2004), p. 455
2. Zamoyski p. 378

Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Ladies of Longwood: Albine de Montholon & Fanny Betrand

Albine de Montholon (1779-1848).

A lady of somewhat easy virtue. She was first married at the age of 15, and was twice divorced.

She married Charles Tristan de Montholon, some four years her junior, in 1812. Their marriage had been opposed by Napoleon.

Mme de Montholon is very different from Mme Bertrand, a scheming woman who has known where her best interests lie, far better than we do. Mme Bertrand, on the contrary, does not. - Napoleon (1)

she is called "The Minister of Bonaparte" in Europe .. She has a very different head than that of madame Bertrand. - attributed to Monthchenu, the French Commissioner. (2)

When she accompanied her husband and young son Tristan (1812-1831) to St Helena she left behind a 12 year old son from a previous marriage and also a baby, Charles Frédéric Montholon (1814-1886), who was considered too young to travel.

Whilst on St Helena she gave birth to two daughters, Napoléone (1816-1907) and Joséphine(1818-1819).

She was reputed to have had a number of romantic liaisons whilst on the island. Possibly with Admiral Cockburn, more certainly with Napoleon and with Lt. Basil Jackson, who followed her off the island in 1819 at the wish of the Governor, and stayed with her in Brussels.

Fanny Bertrand raised doubts as to who was the father of Napoléone, who was conceived on the Northumberland. It is fairly clear though that Napoleon had no relationship with Albine at that time, but there is now almost general agreement that Joséphine, who was conceived at Longwood, was Napoleon's daughter.

Mme Montholon decided to leave the island in 1819, after she had become infatuated with the young Basil Jackson. Napoleon was concerned at the relationship, apparently less from jealousy than from suspicion that everything that was happening at Longwood was being reported back to the Governor. (3)

Napoleon was determined not to lose the Count de Montholon, and offered every inducement to get Albine to leave on her own. He told her that she would easily find a husband. Sire, a woman may easily find a lover, but not a husband she replied. (4)

Mme Montholon duly left on board the Lady Campbell in July 1819. She took with her 12 turkeys, 72 chickens, 2 goats to provide milk for the children, 2 ducks and numerous bottles of wine.

On the day of her departure her husband sent her a note: The Emperor expresses deep regret at your departure, his tears flowed for you, maybe for the first time in his life. (5)

Joséphine died shortly after they arrived back in Europe, and Mme de Montholon blamed herself. She felt that it would not have happened had she stayed on the island.

She also lost most of her personal possessions in a fire that broke out at her home in Brussels. A similar event happened to Joseph Bonaparte in January 1820. There is some suspicion that both events were the work of agents acting for one or other of the monarchs of Europe who were concerned that Napoleon's correspondence with them was about to be published.

Because of a failure of the various parties to agree on a replacement for her husband, she was apparently even contemplating returning to St Helena before news arrived of the Emperor's death.

After her husband's return to Europe the couple soon separated and remained in that state until her death - divorce had been abolished in post-revolutionary France.

She died at Montpellier in 1848 aged 69. Her embalmed body lies in the Chapelle des Penitents bleus, Montpellier. There was a curious decision in the last days of the German occupation to move it to Les Invalides, but for whatever reason this was never carried out.

Élisabeth Françoise Bertrand, (1785-1836)

See also blogs on Bertrands Cottage and the French actress Rachel.

A cousin of the Empress Josephine, Fanny had enlisted the help of her and Napoleon in finding a husband.

Among those suggested were Prince Alphonse Pignatelli (he died), Prince Aldobrandini - later King of Portugal, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, the Prince of Neuchatel and Prince Bernard of Saxe-Coburg.

For one reason or another all these matches fell through. Two days after her mother's death she went to Josephine desperately seeking a husband, and was told that Napoleon had finally found one: General Bertrand. She was not pleased and, volatile as ever, when Napoleon came in she said What, sire! Bertrand! Bertrand! Why not the Pope's monkey?

Still, she married him in 1808 in the house of Josephine's daughter Hortense at Saint-Leu, and they had what appears to have been a happy marriage.

There is not another Bertrand in the world. I think the mould for making such men is broken. - Fanny Bertrand(6)

She accompanied her husband to Elba and, reluctantly to St Helena. She was accompanied by their children Napoleon, Henri and Hortense.

Whilst at St Helena she suffered a number of miscarriages, and gave birth to a son, Arthur.

Rumours were rife that Fanny had romantic liaisons with Admiral Cockburn or an English Officer, Harrison. Some wonder whether young Arthur was perhaps Harrison's son. Napoleon also in his final days certainly cast doubts on her fidelity, but that may have been simply the result of anger and bitterness at her.

Of some things we may be certain: Fanny hated Albine Montholon and was jealous of the influence of her and her husband over Napoleon. At the time when rumours of the relationship between Napoleon and Albine were rife, she made it clear that she could have been his mistress had she wanted to. It is certain however, that she never became Napoleon's mistress, as Napoleon himself was to complain bitterly in his last few weeks.

The core of Napoleon's complaint against her seems to have been her withdrawal from life at Longwood. The Bertrands had always lived separately from the main party, first at Hutts Gate, and then in the separate cottage built for them away from the main house at Longwood.
For six years she had not played the part she should have played. She should have dined with him, or at the very least she should have joined his party of an evening. (7)
To correct the balance it is worth noting the diary entry made by her husband on February 7th 1821, before the bitterness and sadness of the final days:

.. There was no one of whom he thought more highly, though at times he had said unkind things about her. (8)

The unkind words were not yet finished!

In early 1821 Fanny had a miscarriage from which she nearly died, and Antommarchi spent a long time with her, much to Napoleon's annoyance. Bertrand's diary of the last few months gives a fascinating glimpse into a desperately unhappy world in which Bertrand faithfully recorded the most monstrous allegations against the virtue of his wife and pleaded with Napoleon to see her and to allow her to nurse him. Napoleon was adamant: he was used to Marchand, but would see Mme Bertrand before he died. At this point Betrand recorded,The Grand Marshall was unable to restrain his tears.(9)

On the evening of 26th April Napoleon said 5 or 6 times to Marchand, How is Mme la Marshall? Tell me, how is she?(10)

Finally he saw her at mass in the Emperor's apartment on 29th April, and then she visited him on succeeding days. She was shocked at his appearance.
According to Marchand he said to her:
Well Madame, you too have been ill. But now you are better. Your illness is known whereas mine is not, and therefore I am dying.

Fanny and her children were with Napoleon when he died.

1. Memoirs of General Bertrand Grand Marshall of the Palace January to May 1821 April 24th 1821, p. 198
2. Albert Benhamou L'autre Sainte-Hélène: La Captivité, La Maladie, La Mort, Et Les Médecins Autour De Napoléon p.248
3. The fact that Basil Jackson had indeed acted as a spy for the Governor was revealed to the Longwood party on May 8th 1821. Bertrand p. 265
4. Albert Benhamou p 203
5. Albert Benhamou, p. 208.
6. G. L. de St. M. Watson, A Polish Exile with Napoleon (London 1912) p. 234
7. April 14th 1821. Bertrand p.159
8. Bertrand p. 61
9. Bertrand p. 164
10. Bertrand p. 218

Monday, 6 December 2010

The Napoleonfish

The humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) mainly found in coral reefs in the Indo-Pacific region. It is also known as the Māori wrasse, Napoleon wrasse, Napoleonfish; or "So Mei" 蘇眉 (Cantonese) and "Mameng" (Filipino) - thankyou wikipedia.

I had never heard of this beauty before, and neither had the two greatest living authorities on such matters known to me: my 11 year old grandson and my 88 year old neighbour. How pleasing it was for me to tell them something they did not already know.

I wonder when it got the Napoleon name? Perhaps someone can enlighten me?