Let’s look at the Napoléonic meltdown, chart his decline into intermittent mental illness.
Napoléon marched a city of 690,000 into Russia, of which 420,000 were combatants, 286,000 under his direct control. Running counter to his already proven Napoléonic strategy in war – stay small and compact and flexible, in order to be able to go and strike anywhere anytime – Napoléon marched a huge invasion force of soldiers, supports, wives and others northward, with supply-support not needed times three, but times ten.
An army that gets too far in front of its supply support lines particularly in unknown enemy territory is in danger. The health and well-being of the marching troops very early became critical factors for Napoléon.
Travelling through a sweltering European summer of 1812 general hygiene soon became an issue for the troops. Those who were wined and dined and cheered on in places such as Germany became very quickly thirsty, hungry, lice-carrying troops in the Duchy of Warsaw, typhus appearing and spreading quickly among them.
By the time the invasion force crossed over the Nieman into Russia, Napoléon’s troops were already badly afflicted. Many of his men were dying or already dead. Was this fact communicated to Napoléon? Was desertion which was also a significant factor communicated to him? Was the man on the white horse receiving and digesting the bad news?
Even without typhus, thirst, hunger and general fatigue took a toll on his army. When Napoléon caught up with the Russians at Smolensk, what once was a huge numerical advantage for the French leader 4 to 1 at the outset of the campaign, was now half that.
At Smolensk the spiritual sister-city of Moscow for Russians, a city filled with religious icons and fiercely patriotic Russians, Napoléon saw an opportunity to set the tone of his invasion. He had been seeking an early victory – something the Russians kept trying to deny him.
Setting up for battle Napoléon seemed incapable of working out a winning strategy, so much so the Prussian military theorist, Carl Von Clausewitz, working for the Russians, later wrote that Napoléon failed tactically from that first encounter with the Russian army. Clausewitz was astounded that Napoléon mounted a full-frontal attack from the west, arguing he should have surrounded and secured the city before attempting any moves.
This failure of tactics seems to signal a decline in Napoléon’s military capacities, a trend which began manifesting itself more frequently after Smolensk.
In fighting man-to-man in the streets against very determined Russians, including members of the priesthood, Napoléon’s troops suffered major casualties, created in part because the Russian General Pyotr Bagration kept feeding in fresh Russian reinforcements through the city’s uncontrolled back door.
The battle for Smolensk amounted to a technical victory for the French, but in fact was Napoléon’s first failure in the Russian campaign.
Casualties although high on both sides, the Russians wisely continued retreating under the command of the German Scot Barclay de Tolly. Whether Barclay or his high-command decided the strategy, or fell into it, the defeat of Napoléon was underway.
Troop numbers were now critical for Napoléon, not only because of Smolensk. Even though he didn’t know what the cause was, Napoléon’s surgeon, and medic in charge of the army, was seeing more and more soldiers infected by a virulent disease, and witnessed many die. Napoléon’s aide-de camp, Marquis de Caulaincourt, also noted the dying. It is unimaginable that Napoléon would have been unaware of this. It is also clear that he didn’t surround Smolensk because he knew he didn’t have enough troops.
So why did Napoléon chase the Russians? He had told Metternich months earlier that he planned to build a base at Smolensk, supply it and have his troops rest through the winter, before attacking Russia properly in the following spring. Instead he changed his plans.
Leaving a troop contingent to make a base and hold the city, he and his men rode after the Russians, even though the French leader’s army was fatigued, disease-routed and supplies-stretched.
Napoléon always craved a morale-boosting battle early to rouse his army, more than he wanted a rested army. But when Maréchal Junot disobeyed his orders and failed to attack the retreating Russian’s rear, the French leader’s plans began falling apart. Still he rode on.
So what is the point of recounting all this? Napoléon’s judgment was failing him, along with his tactics. Was he no longer able to endure such an arduous campaign? Were his problems deeper than age? Was his mind actually in the process of disintegrating?