An alternative view of Napoleon and the men of the First Empire
The author of this book, Alexander Kielland,was a Norwegian academic who had embarked upon a study of the Congress of Vienna when he became, by his own admission, captivated by the personality of the Emperor of the French. That fascination led to the writing of this book which looks upon the career, character traits and methods of the management of power and war of one of the most significant figures in European history. It is clear that Kielland has his own take on his subject and there will be those who take issue with him on some of his conclusions. Nevertheless, this campaign by campaign chronicle of the rise and fall of Napoleon is an absorbing book in which readers will find themselves compulsively reading on; this is in some measure as a result of the large number of ‘Napoleon’s Men,’ considerably more than the usual shortlist of principal characters so often acknowledged, who are introduced within the text. The cast is impressive and small details of how Napoleon touched their lives, their weaknesses, moments of note and their ultimate fates make this account distinctive. Kielland also provides insights into members of the Bonaparte and Beauharnais families and their two-way relationships with Napoleon. The nationality of the writer is of course significant since he has no particular nationalistic ‘axe to grind’ regarding those about whom he writes, either individually or as nations. Kielland’s impartiality helps him to offer the reader insights which are notable in that they are often quite different to those that more partisan observers could possibly offer on the same personalities, countries, causes or events. For those who have a fascination for the Napoleonic Wars this is an interesting and highly entertaining addition to its study. Available in softcover or hardback with dustjacket for collectors.
The French army had to begin its retreat at once, as they had only powder and balls for two hours more, and the next arsenals were at Erfurt and Magdeburg. During the last five days the French had fired 250,000 rounds from their guns, an enormous figure for the guns of that period. All night long trains and waggons were passing over the Lindenau bridge; they were followed by the cavalry, the Guard, and part of the infantry. The greatest obstacle to the march was found in the many watercourses, over which there were not enough bridges.<br>
With the first streaks of dawn there began a furious struggle in the streets of Leipzig, and it became fiercer and fiercer as the light grew. It was worst in the neighbourhood of the large bridge over the Elster, leading to the high road from Frankfort to Lindenau, which was about two miles long in its elevated part. If the Emperor had given the obvious order to fire the suburbs and defend the retreat step by step, destroying everything behind him, the whole army would have had plenty of time to get over the bridge; but he would not ruin Leipzig, out of regard for the aged king. He bade a heartfelt farewell to his one true ally, the only prince for whom he had ever had a personal feeling.<br>
In their delight at the retreat, which they had hardly expected, the Allies rushed impetuously into the suburbs of Leipzig, but the gates were obstinately held by Marmont, Reynier, Ney, Poniatowski, and Lauriston. If they had kept their position for two hours more—and there was every appearance that they could do so—the whole army could have crossed the bridge at Lindenau and reached the road to Lützen. But just then occurred one of those unfortunate episodes that could never have happened to the Emperor in his best days—to say nothing of General Bonaparte—but which abound in the Russian and Saxon campaigns. The Elster bridge was undermined and ready to be blown up. The Emperor had personally supervised the carrying out of this work, and he had left behind orders that the mine was not to be fired until the last moment, when the army was across and the enemy close at hand. He then rode across with his staff.<br>
The crush now became frightful, and the situation was not easy to survey. There were still numbers of foreign troops amongst the French, in spite of the desertions of the previous day. Men in all sorts of uniforms were crossing the bridge in the greatest disorder and under different commands, and the noise of the guns and small arms came nearer and nearer. There ought to have been a general of engineers with his staff on the bridge, but in point of fact it was merely a high officer who had charge of the mines, and he seems to have lost his head. It is said that he thought of crossing the bridge to get more precise instructions from the Emperor. It turned out as he might have expected. Once he got into the torrent of men that swept over the bridge, no power in the world could have brought him back to his place at the mines. There was now only a non-commissioned officer with the burning fuse in his hand.<br>
No one will be surprised that the poor man, with no explicit order or indication of the right moment, fired the mine prematurely. The fearful noise it made, rising above the thunder of the guns and all other sounds, awakened Napoleon, who had dropped off to sleep while he was dictating orders for Macdonald. Murat and Augereau rushed to him and told him that the big bridge over the Elster had been blown up. It meant that 20,000 men were cut off from him and from France, and devoted to destruction. It was almost like the tragedy on the Beresina. Many of them preferred to die rather than surrender. They threw themselves into the river, but only a few good swimmers and the officers who rode sound horses got across.<br>
Marshal Poniatowski heard the explosion, like the others, and knew what it meant. He gave up the fight as useless, and flung himself in the river with a few other officers. But he was exhausted with wounds and with his exertions, and could not drive the animal up the opposite bank. It fell back into the river, and the prince was drowned. The brave Pole only carried for three days the marshal’s staff he had so well deserved. General Dumoussier also was drowned. The tall powerful Scot, Macdonald, tore off his marshal’s uniform and all his clothes, leaped into the water, and swam across the Elster. He crawled up the opposite bank, and raced across the field. He fortunately discovered a few soldiers of his own corps, and at once resumed command, stark naked at he was. He had to cover the retreat.<br>
Napoleon left the flower of the youth of France and the core of his old invincible army on the plains of Leipzig. Seventeen generals were taken prisoners, including General Lauriston. And Napoleon lost here also the confidence of his officers and the whole of his influence in Europe, yet he kept his saddle and fought from Leipzig to Erfurt against the force, four times as great as his own, that was pursuing him. The enemy never ceased to look on him as the dreadful soldier whom it was dangerous to approach.