“We maintain…that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means. We deliberately use the phrase ‘with the addition of other means’ because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essentials that intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs.” Carl von Clausewitz—On War
Von Clausewitz sounds almost reasonable. A man with a pipe in a lounge chair saying something sensible about politics transforming suddenly into war. Just as normal as the molecules of heated water suddenly boiling and turning into gas vapour.
Only war isn’t reasonable because war has never truly ever been reasonable. It is a kind of madness—at best an organised form of human madness.
Let me be blunt: War is the most frightening grotesque idea humans have ever conceived. Ask those who are unwilling participants first-up—not the generals and staff officers some distance away from the nitty gritty frontline.
There are of course ways and methods of rationalising reasons for war and there is at least one good defence. Self-defence. People, nations have a right even a duty to defend themselves. Though then the reasons collide and soon everyone is staggering around in a fog of war. Discretion is the better part of valour, only not always.
My earliest memory of human madness came from my mother—who in recounting to me a story her father had told her occupied my mind for many sleepless moments at night.
My grandfather’s arm was permanently disabled by a dum-dum bullet fired by a sniper in World War 1. He returned home to become the manager of a returned serviceman’s club. In his spare time he visited men who were inmates at the city’s main mental hospital (stricken, wounded returned servicemen I believe, but I can’t be sure). The wounded helping the wounded at the scary place, the place on the hill, we kids whispered—tales of the scary-place told and retold in the street.
A man there said to my grandfather. ‘I am as sane as you. I don’t know why I am here.’ (I am guessing now but my grandfather’s fault here is that he was humouring the poor man—wishing him well would be enough to fall into a form of gentle condescension.) Glad he could help-out at least a little, my grandfather turned to leave, and for his well-meant efforts and concern for the man’s welfare he was pushed down some asylum stairs.
How does anyone defend him or herself when a moment madness appears in one form or another? How do we analyse madness? Madness as a word is part folklore, part frightening comic tale children yell at each other in backyards. Madness has several meanings and definitions in medicine. So it’s probably wrong to call Napoléon’s invasion of Russia an act of madness without qualification, without consulting an expert. I give ground on that. Many no doubt think at worst Napoléon’s attack on Russia in 1812 was a military miscalculation. Only that. Napoléon Bonaparte drags 690,000 north across Europe to invade another sovereign country and he made a military miscalculation.
Napoléon was on a noble military mission to free serfs and turn barbaric Russia into a modern nation state (get Russia back inside his continental system more like it). None of which he did, I add. But he was trying to do the free-the serfs-thing—apparently—until he lost—so give him half a mark out of ten for good intentions. Still I’ll bet the smart money is still on: Napoléon was out of head.
At best he needed his head read. But no-one even thought to do it it seems. Napoléon marched 690,000 north into Russia and exited five or so months later with 20,000 or so half dead combatants and no-one even said: Nappy you need to see a psychiatrist.
Then he went on to lose the Battle of Leipzig in 1813 and his army. And let’s not go into the madness of how that all ended, a corporal panicking and blowing up a bridge, trapping thousands of French soldiers. Equally let’s not return to the mess that was Waterloo. It was all the actions of a sane man making small military miscalculations.
The Russians defended themselves effectively against Napoléon. Russia’s strategy of retreat worked well, even if everyone in the Russian command didn’t think it was a great idea.
“Tell me for God’s sake,” Prince Bagration said, “what will our Russia—our mother—say seeing that we are so frightened … that we are giving up such a good and zealous Fatherland to such rabble and instilling hatred and disgrace in every subject? Why are we so cowardly, and who are we afraid of? It is not my fault that the minister is irresolute, cowardly, muddle-headed, temporizing, and has every bad quality. The whole army is completely in tears and scolds him to death …”
Discretion is the better part of valour. Barclay de Tolly’s strategies as the Russian army chief lacked valour—at least in the mind of General Bagration.
Important aside: The problem here is I am discussing the merits and demerits of Napoléon’s Russia campaign as if it is proper to elevate his mission—which I freely admit I think was a mad as anything I have ever read about—to, in effect, take this madness and turn it into a subject worthy of sane inquiry. When, to me, it is and was no better than a pointless sudden explosive street fight, all started for no reason. Still, to show I am reasonable, I am willing to consider the other side. Some think the art of militarism is born from the inner necessity of a soldier in an enigmatic mystical way through which it acquires an autonomous life which becomes an independent entity animated by a spiritual breath. Okay I have heard the idea. Guess what, I think it is MADNESS.
What was Napoléon’s motive for the invasion? He didn’t really know—wasn’t sure what he could achieve—except start a fight as soon as he got inside Russia. Yes, he wanted to show Tsar Alexander who was boss of Europe. Alexander had broken the terms of the unfairly drawn-up Tilsit Treaty and Napoléon was angry about that.
Napoléon was only 43 during the Russian campaign of 1812, so dementia is not quite yet a useful excuse. His performance was less-effective than others of his age. Some very pressing physical ailments, as I argue in the last instalment hampered him—Napoléon had PTSD.
Yet, I think it was more about the ‘mentalness’ of his intentions, not his physical inability to achieve his objectives.
By the time he left Smolensk and chased the Russians—heading for Moscow—his forces were reduced by battles, desertion, starvation, thirst, disease, to around 160,000, give or take a few ten thousand men with their horses and wagons.
Marching/riding after the Russians, Napoléon also found himself facing a new chief of the Russian army. Barclay had been removed by Alexander.
Recently back from a campaign against the Ottoman Empire in the south, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov rode to meet his army on 29 August. Kutuzov was considered a Russian’s Russian. With battle credentials and two head wounds, he satisfied his Russian officers who couldn’t take another retreat-filled day under Barclay. Napoléon was also happy over Kutuzov’s appearance. He had beaten him at Austerlitz.
At the age of 67 Kutuzov was at the end of his career. Fitness for duty concerning physical and mental condition was evening-up at the top between the two sides.
Moscow gave Napoléon sleepless nights and countless nightmares. Moscou, la capitale asiatique de ce grand empire, la ville sacrée des peuples d’Alexandre, Moscou avec ses innombrables églises en forme de pagodes chinoises!
Like no other challenge in his life Napoléon wanted to enter this city as the conqueror. But did his Grande Armée have enough fight left? Could Napoléon ride triumphantly through Moscow’s gates and control Russia? Would Alexander give up the crown to him? Would Russians accept Napoléon as their new ruler? Could he keep open the gateway to Asia? Was he as great as Alexander of Macedonia? At the end of the road Napoléon was on lay the City of Truth. On he went, chasing a fate-defining military-engagement.