(First published at Strategic Culture Foundation. Picked up by Oriental Review.)
I have just read the memoirs of General Armand de Caulaincourt who accompanied Napoleon throughout the Russian venture. He was France’s Ambassador to Russia from 1807 until 1811 and got to know the Emperor Alexander quite well. Napoleon recalled him and he eventually resumed his tasks as his Master of the Horse.
His account begins with a long conversation with Napoleon. Just before he left St Petersburg, Alexander called him in for what was, unmistakeably, a message and warning to be passed on. De Caulaincourt really tries hard – but unsuccessfully – to make Napoleon get the point. He tells him that Alexander said he had learned something from the Spanish resistance to France and that was that Napoleon’s other opponents had given up too early; they should have kept fighting. Napoleon is unimpressed: his generals in Spain are incompetent and and his brother (to whom he had given the Spanish throne) is an idiot; he sees no larger lessons and believes that Spain is not important in the great scheme. De Caulaincourt reiterates that Alexander kept returning to that point, giving other illustrations of giving up too soon and emphasised that, if Napoleon invaded, he would persevere: he would keep fighting from Kamchatka if need be; Russia was very large and the weather very severe. One good battle and they’ll give up insists Napoleon. Napoleon then mentions how angry the Poles are getting with Russia. De Caulaincourt retorts that the Poles he knows, while they would certainly prefer a free and independent Poland, have learned that living under Russia is not as bad as they thought it would be and that real freedom might cost more than it would be worth. De Caulaincourt then, no doubt repeating what Alexander has told him, describes the compromise that would settle the problems between him and Russia; but Napoleon’s not interested. After five hours of this, Napoleon dismisses him but de Caulaincourt asks leave to say one more thing: if you are thinking of invading (now de Caulaincourt realises that he’s set on it) please think of France’s best interests. Oh says Napoleon, now you’re talking like a Russian.
Well, the similarities just leap off the page don’t they? Napoleon today is played by Washington. (One may hope that Trump’s pullout from Syria marks the beginning of real change. But let’s wait and see what actually happens.) There have been years of ignorant overconfidence in Washington – just like Napoleon’s – Russia is a gas station pretending to be a country, it doesn’t make anything and its GDP is less than Canada’s or Spain’s or some other not very important country. (In truth, since Russia’s arrival in Syria, some hawks are starting to sound less confident: as a recent example an American thinktank warms that the US Navy might not prevail against Russia and China.) But the popular expectation remains that one more push and Putin will cave in: he won’t be holding out in Kamchatka. Russia today is played by Russia, of course. As to who’s playing Poland, Ukraine makes a good stand-in (although Poland may be trying to reprise its role). Napoleon’s assertion that Poland wants war with Russia is replicated by today’s Kiev regime: it is doing its best to make it happen. But, like de Caulaincourt’s account of actual Poles, there is little to suggest that ordinary Ukrainians have much stomach for a war and one may suspect that a majority would be happy to a return to the (miserable, but not as miserable) time before the “revolution of Dignity”. Who plays the role of Spain, the nation that didn’t understand that it had been beaten? Today gives us several candidates: you may choose from Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria.
But, what’s really contemporary, and he repeats it several times, is Napoleon’s sneer that de Caulaincourt has become a Russian: even two centuries ago, long before RT, Sputnik or Facebook ads, Russia’s malign “information war” and “fake news memes” were polluting Western minds! Then, as well as today, anyone who deviated from the received wisdom must be echoing Russian falsehood.
As I said, the similarities jumped out at me a couple of pages into de Caulaincourt’s account. On the one hand we see the man who actually knows what he’s talking about and who is trying to relay an important message to his superior; on the other the arrogant superior who knows everything and calls all disagreement
Putinism Russianism. And, in the background, the yappy little players trying to wag the Imperial Dog. And, airily dismissed, the years-old failures on other battlefronts.
Well, we all know what happened, don’t we? Napoleon put together an army (with lots of Poles) and invaded. De Caulaincourt was there at his side every step in and out. And Russia proved (as it did again in 1941) that it didn’t realise when it had been defeated. De Caulaincourt takes us through it. Napoleon’s confidence that the Russians are falling back and he will defeat them in detail. The shocking losses of horses and the gradual wearing away of cavalry scouts. The invisibility of the Russian army. Scorched earth – de Caulaincourt compares the Grande Armée to a vessel alone on a huge, empty ocean. Supply problems. More horse losses. Distance and more distance and still no victorious battle. Guerrillas. No prisoners. No information.
Let us consider Smolensk. Napoleon occupied it and, after a brief fight (and the burning of the city), took possession. David Glanz has convincingly argued that the Battle of Smolensk in 1941, while a German victory, was actually Germany’s defeat because it meant that the short blitzkrieg victory Berlin counted on was no longer possible; in a long war, the USSR’s mighty industrial capacity would come into play. And so it was for Napoleon: too late, too little and still no negotiations. But he convinced himself that there would be peace in six weeks (he is now about the only optimist left in the Grande Armée). Messengers are sent to Alexander. No answer. The Grande Armée marches east in search of The Battle. At last – Borodino, one of the bloodiest days in warfare – but the Russian army disappears again. He takes Moscow – now Alexander must talk. He – another echo of today – has convinced himself that Russia’s nobles (big businessmen) will force Alexander (Putin) to give in because they are losing so much. But they don’t. Through de Caulaincourt’s reporting we see the adamantine self-delusion of Napoleon. At last Napoleon gives up, goes home and the Russian Army follows him all the way back to Paris. See the famous graph.
Napoleon still doesn’t get it: one of his sillier complaints is that Kutuzov doesn’t understand strategy; well it’s not Kutuzov who’s plodding through icy roads littered with abandoned equipment, butchered horses and dead soldiers, is it? “I beat the Russians every time, but that doesn’t get me anywhere”. Winning every battle and losing the war is not as uncommon as all that: we have seen it from Darius and the Scythians to the US and Afghanistan.
Everything turns out as de Caulaincourt warned him. Except that, in the end, Alexander doesn’t go to Kamchatka, he goes to Paris instead. The story is that the French bistro owes its name to the Russian быстро! (quickly!). True or not, there once were Russian soldiers in Paris demanding quick service. There are already bistros in Washington, So after Napoleon (USA/NATO) invades Russia (Russia) ignoring de Caulaincourt’s (lots-of-people-on-this-site’s) advice, what new culinary event will Russian (Russian) soldiers leave behind in Paris (Washington)? A Ёлки-Палки on every street? Kvas trolleys?
Oh, and Poland, after 70,000 casualties in the Russian war, remained partitioned.
We return to today. Napoleon (USA/NATO) professes its desire for peace but… those pesky Russians (Russians) are making trouble for Poland (Ukraine – or is it Poland again?) which presses for an attack. The Spanish (Afghans/Iraqis/Syrians) say, whatever Napoleon (USA/NATO) may think, they don’t feel beaten yet. Alexander (Putin) says “he would not fire the first shot, but also that he would sheathe the sword last”.
To quote Field Marshal Montgomery, who had more experience in big wars and standing on the victory podium than any US general since MacArthur: “Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war, is: ‘Do not march on Moscow'”. (His second rule, by the way, was: “Do not go fighting with your land armies in China.” As Washington’s policy drives Moscow and Beijing closer together…. But that is another subject).
I don’t know who the next US Defence Secretary will be, but I have a suggestion for some introductory reading.