Napoléon’s 1812 Mental Illness – 2

“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— just wishing the man well was perhaps mistakable for a form of 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 of 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 that Napoléon’s attack on Russia in 1812 was only a miscalculation. Just that. Napoléon Bonaparte drags 690,000 north across Europe to invade another sovereign country and he made a military miscalculation.

Napoléon said he 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. He thought he was there to free Russians serfs—apparently—until he gave up his moral mission, and was driven out of Russia. So, give him half a mark out of ten for good intentions. Still I’ll bet the smart money is on: Napoléon was out of his head.

At best he needed his head read, but no-one thought to do it back then. Napoléon marched 690,000 north into Russia and exited five or so months later with less than 20,000 half-dead combatants and no-one thought to say: Nappy, you need to see a psychiatrist.

Napoléon went on to lose the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, losing another 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. They were all the actions of a sane man making difficult military calculations.

The Russians defended themselves effectively against Napoléon. Russia’s strategy of retreat worked exceptionally well, even if everyone in the Russian command didn’t think so at the time.

“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 Napoléon’s 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, that I’m willing to consider the other side—I’ll state this: 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 said it. Guess what, I think it’s 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 perhaps more about the ‘mentalness’ of his intentions, not just his physical condition. His objectives were mental.

By the time he left Smolensk, chasing the Russians—heading for Moscow—his forces were already reduced by skirmishes, battles, desertion, starvation, thirst, disease, to 160,000, give or take a few ten thousand men and 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.

Barclay de Tolly

Recently back from a campaign against the Ottoman Empire in the south, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov rode to meet the Russian army on 29 August. Kutuzov, considered a Russian’s Russian, with battle credentials, a survivor or two head wounds, satisfied the Russian officers who couldn’t take another retreat-filled day under Barclay. Napoléon was happy with Kutuzov’s appearance. He had beaten him at Austerlitz.

Prince Mikhail Kutuzov

At the age of 67 Kutuzov was at the end of his career. Fitness for duty concerning physical and mental condition was evening-up the command strengths 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 Moscow as its conqueror. But did his Grande Armée have enough fight left? Could Napoléon ride triumphantly through Moscow’s gates and control Russia’s empire? Would Alexander give up his crown to Napoléon Bonaparte? Would Russians accept Napoléon as their ruler? Could he open up 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.

Napoléon’s 1812 Mental Illness – 1

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?

Trump Napoléon and Mental Illness

The United States is as good as done with Trump (there’s a few tantrums to come) and we are now just months away from the bicentennial anniversary of the death of Napoléon.

Unhappy Nappy at Borodino
Donnie hearing the final vote-count

Two men in politics with very different histories and characters though both suffered from comparable delusional fantasies.

Mental illness is at the centre of both men’s failure: Trump’s sociopathy; Napoléon’s shell shock/PTSD.

Donnie’s mismanagement of COVID-19 in 2020 is enough to condemn him, and the 1812 Russian campaign is enough to condemn Napoléon.

With Trump: let’s forget the Mexican wall, the ruined lives of children, the destruction of America’s international standing, the cosying-up to dictators by a neophyte with only cash on his mind, the obtaining and maintenance of loans for himself and others in his circle, all against the Emoluments clause rules deftly written into the American Constitution – even without all that, Donnie’s mishandling of Covid-19 does it for him. All by itself.

Bonaparte’s mismanagement of the Typhus epidemic in his army speaks eloquently for his abilities at the end of his career. Forget his runaway from Egypt, his failure at Smolensk, or Borodino, or his empty negotiations with Alexander, or his cowardice at Maloyaroslavets, leading to the disastrous retreat that killed hundreds of thousands. Let’s even forget his floundering and desertion of his army at Bérézina (again he left his army) – Nappy’s mishandling of Typhus does it for him. All by itself.

Both men rose improvisationally, powered by others. Both were chancers, inveterate risk takers, who got noticed by those who know how to and can use people like them. Napoléon as an artillery commander made himself seem big in opportune moments, making himself seem a better soldier than he really was. The powerful saw an opportunity.

Donald began as a real estate impresario who went bankrupt over and over reinventing himself through copious lying and fraud, the powerful seeing an opportunity and throwing an electoral dice into his lap.

Both Nappy and Donny proved to be narcissistic self-deluding conmen, mister damn-lucky fraudster meets criminal. Donald constructing phoney real estate projects – mafia-style. Napoléon running around redrawing the boundaries in Europe – mafia style.

So where does mental illness come in and how did it adulterate their lofty fates?

By Borodino Nappy’s brain was shot to pieces. Hammered every second by the battering-sonics of seven muskets and three cannon, a cowering PTSD shell-shocked Nappy had a severe urinary tract infection. He sat, a shadow of himself, on a dinner-table chair (probably pissing himself), unable to dream up a simple way of winning, even though his maréchaux kept offering-up ideas. Napoléon Bonaparte’s military dreams and often over-stated genius had shrivelled to nothing before the disaster of Borodino rolled-out in a field. A field like any other, a field of no strategic importance, as Tolstoy said.

With the ghost of Pyrrhus on his shoulder, the Russians retreating, Nappy deluded himself in to occupying Moscow for several depressing weeks. As he sat watching his troops strip, ransack and abuse the sacred cradle of Russian history, he kept on pretending he was negotiating with Tsar Alexander, the Russian monarch who didn’t even bother to answer his letters.

Spying first snowflakes, Nappy hastily left Moscow, a hollow, frightened man who then was spooked by Cossacks at Maloyaroslavets rushing out at him from a forest. Nappy and his commanders were out reconnoitering his next-round of pretend plans, a shaken Nappy saved only by the bravery of his Imperial Guard.

Back in his tent, he sat silent and blinking as a vehement Murat, the bravest of his maréchaux, logically outlined his arguments for the only solution left: join battle with Kutuzov south at Kaluga. And if successful, the French would have food on that open well-provisioned road west.

Nappy sighed and shifted-around and made excuses, then ordered his troops back north and west back along the food-stripped beaten old Moscow Smolensk road, taking his men by the still shocking death scene of Borodino, a field which weeks after battle lay covered in rotting human remains. It was enough to stun his most-hardened troops. Nappy drove his army west into the freezing Russian winter, unprepared, food-less, to certain death.

For Bankrupt Donnie’s part, living the life of politicians in his never-ending ‘let me show you how I cheat at golf’ picnic, Donnie threw money at the billionaire-class and waited for re-election – his belly growing sumptuously on junk-food. Only a pandemic stepped on to the path out in front and gave him history’s answer to wannabe-dictators like him.

After his catastrophic handling of Covid-19, facing rejection by the people in the 2020 election – which they delivered resoundingly – will Donald now continue on abusing the office he still unfortunately sits in? Will he try to save his skin, skirt justice, stay somehow out of jail? Nappy and Donny are good at getting away.

Napoléon predicted his end in 1805, just after winning Austerlitz, saying: ‘I have five good years left.’ Donald looks as if he would have said something similar in 2016: ‘I have four years. Let’s fake it.’ Both Nappy and Donny are famous for their ‘tells’. Both men knew all along what they were doing.

Donald’s sociopathy is a muck centre others call their heart. Napoléon’s PTSD was a malignant prostate pounder that ruined his head. Both knew enough to know they were infecting and killing wantonly with their respective couldn’t care-less ambitions.

Mental illness is the connecting factor of these two self-aggrandisers at two ends of history, chancers who mired their respective countries in a swamp of narcissistic self-delusion. Nappy in his bicorne, Donnie in his hair hat.