With the year’s catastrophe in the Ukraine still on our radars let’s remember 210 years ago—Putin and Napoléon losing themselves inside a similar space. While Vladimir Putin is careful to stay out of harm’s way, Napoléon Bonparte had courage enough to travel with his army, as did Alexander, Hannibal, Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan. If Putin had travelled with his generals maybe this conflict would already be over.
Napoléon’s 1812 Russia campaign failed, why? Bad luck? The mistakes of others? Or as Shakespeare wrote: ‘the fault dear Brutus is not in our stars but in ourselves.’
From Sainte-Hélène, Napoléon wrote: … “the defeat was not the result of the ‘efforts of the Russians’ but rather [due to] ‘complete accidents’ … ‘a capital burned to the ground by foreign parties before the eyes of its inhabitants’ … ‘a freezing winter the sudden arrival and intensity of which was nothing less than phenomenal’ and finally ‘false reports, ridiculous plots, betrayal and pure stupidity’.
Napoléon did ascribe one ‘possible-fault’ to himself: ‘I did not wish for this famous war, this audacious undertaking. I had no urge to fight. Nor did Alexander, yet once we were face to face, circumstance drove us against each other. Fate did the rest.’
Preparations for Napoléon’s Russia campaign began in 1811. In a letter to his brother Jérôme on 27 January 1812, he wrote: “I have had to assemble my armies, train them, and reconstitute my equipment. These preparations have taken a year.”
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In the sweltering European summer of 1812 Napoléon marched the disparate elements of his 420,000 strong army, driving a mass of 690,000 soldiers and supports up through France and Germany. Reaching the Grand Duchy of Warzaw’s north-eastern border with Russia in late July, he said, he had no urge to fight. His real objective was only to speak with Alexander. Only, somehow he forgot to leave his city-sized force in Paris.
What was Napoléon’s real motive for this project? Did he dream of becoming Tsar of the richest country in Europe? Or was his plan to conquer Russia then head on to the Far East, or if not that, did he want to march south to climb the Himalayas, to take India from the British? Rationales have been offered in subsequent years, but Napoléon’s last great invasionary adventure accrued its lasting, indelible meaning inside Russia – that of a catastrophic military failure.
Subjugation of Alexander was the first task at hand. Napoléon wanted to demonstrate who was the true, great ruler in Europe. Alexander had broken the terms of the Treaties of Tilsit. Napoléon was very angry about that. There was also that ready reason to fall back on.
At the Nieman River border with Lithuania, the most-western point of the Russian Empire, the French leader fell off his horse, joking that if he had been a Caesar in Ancient Rome he might have accepted the omens were bad and turned around and headed home. But for Napoléon there was no going back. That much was clear. He said he was confident of victory. At 43 years of age he was still thirsty for a bloody encounter, even though he had said some seven years earlier, a touch ruefully, that he only had five good years left in him as a soldier.
Still, arrival at the Nieman River made for a truly glorious day. The pontoon crossings went well, and except for the deaths by drowning of some Polish cavalry, who, in trying to impress their great leader, threw themselves and their horses into the strongly flowing waters.
Once some troops were across the river a skirmish happened with a contingent of Russians on the eastern bank, but after some shots from both sides, it was quickly settled when the Russian calvary retreated.
Once inside the Russian Empire Napoléon marched his men around in the first weeks trying to find his opponent. He had planned on forcing the Russians into an early decisive battle but he couldn’t find where they were. He marched on still hoping for an easy victory, an early Russian surrender, while the Russian troops under the command of the German Scot, Barclay de Tolly, deftly managed to avoid him.
Napoléon finally caught up with Barclay at Smolensk, and seeing the Russians were ready to make a stand, he smacked his lips at the prospect. This was the moment he had been craving.
Only Napoléon’s military inventiveness deserted him. Failing to close the city’s ‘ back door’, he launched an artillery bombardment, sending his troops in through ‘the front door’ in a full-frontal attack, which gave Russia’s most famous General, Prince Bagration an clear opportunity he didn’t ignore – the chance to replenish Russia’s troops via the back door.
Smolensk was known as the spiritual sister-city to Moscow, a metropolis filled with icons and patriotic Russians. Where Napoléon saw an opportunity to set the tone of his invasion, the Russians saw a chance to deal the Frenchman and his military dreams a wake-up call. They succeeded.
In the battles in the streets of Smolensk Napoléon’s troops fought mano-a-mano against Russians soldiers, with priests and untrained locals joining-in. Napoléon’s troops suffered major casualties, sustained mostly because Bagration kept pushing Russian reinforcements through the city’s back gate.
In this symbolic military campaign opener Napoléon effectively “lost” his first major test on Russian soil, because he failed to establish a clear method for demoralising the Russians. The Prussian military theorist, Carl Von Clausewitz, at the time advising Russia, wrote that the French leader began losing tactically from this very first encounter with the Russian army. Astounded that Napoléon would mount a full-frontal assault without first surrounding and securing the city, Von Clausewitz wrote that this ‘new’ Napoléon signalled his decline. The failure to establish French superiority at Smolensk was the first step in a trend in Napoléon’s poor decision-making.
Still, with casualties high on both sides, the battle for Smolensk is accorded by “history” as a victory to the French, but that is largely due to the Russian retreat east along the road to Moscow, making it seem as if Barclay de Tolly accepted he had lost Smolensk.
Whether or not Barclay decided this strategy or it was due only to his default position of avoiding confrontations, a military fact was now emerging—the defeat of Napoléon was underway.
Receiving vital support from local farmers and peasantry, who fed their army on their march back to Moscow, the Russian army left the French following them with a Russian farming-community in full resistance mode. Food supplies dried-up, seriously affecting the French, who had to work very hard foraging for any-old edibles and drinking water. Men and horses began to die. Desertions increased daily.
Troop numbers were beginning to create a real problem for Napoléon, and not only due to starvation and desertion. Napoléon’s men were now dying in alarming numbers from a mysterious disease. Napoléon’s personal and chief army surgeon, Dominique Jean Larrey and Napoléon’s aide-de camp, Marquis de Caulaincourt, witnessed the dying. It is unimaginable that Napoléon was unaware of what Typhus was doing to his army.
Did he fail to surround Smolensk because he already knew he didn’t have the troops to carry-out the simultaneous tasks of attacking and securing the city? If he did, then why continue chasing the Russians? He told Austria’s Metternich months earlier that he planned to build a base at Smolensk, rest there rest for winter then attack Russia’s heartland the following spring. Late in this stifling summer, seeing disease, starvation, thirst and desertion savaging his army, Napoléon altered those plans and in changing course he put himself and his army at risk.
Leaving a contingent to hold the city of Smolensk, in part as he had planned to do, Napoléon drove his fatigued, famished, thirsty, and diseased army, with the supply lines over-stretched, after the Russians.
The Russians were heading for Moscow for sound defensive reasons while Napoléon’s forces were engaged in an already dubious military gamble, Napoléon tactics exhibiting his first signs of desperation. Craving a morale-boosting victory he refused to stop chasing, ordering Maréchal Junot to attack the retreating Russians from the rear. Junot ignored the order. The French leader’s military plans were already unravelling. Yet, on he rode, not really chasing the Russians, more lagging behind in their wake.
There are ways and methods of rationalising how wars develop and there is at least one good defence for them developing—self-defence. Nations have a right, even a duty, to defend themselves. The Russians to a man knew what they had to do was what they had to do, defend Russia. They would do whatever it took to make the defence work. It was up to the invaders to match their resolve.
Many in the Russian high-command deplored Barclay’s tactical retreat, however necessary or shrewd. “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 …”
For Bagration—Barclay de Tolly’s discretion was the absence of valour. A foreign-born army chief lacked a Russian’s desire to fight for Russia. Barclay’s retreat showed cowardice and signalled defeatism.
On the French side, Napoléon had barely a shadow of his youthful courage. It wasn’t only his ailments, and he had several, he now seemed unhinged.
It wasn’t a good strategy to drive a depleted army deeper into the enemy’s territory, where the Russians could regroup and replenish their morale. Napoléon’s army, were demonstrating signs of distress as they continued pursuing the Russian army on insufficient food, water and rest. Napoléon’s military plans were unwise but he was now overwhelmed by his desire to win a decisive battle. Then when he did get into a real fight he showed an odd lack of military skill. His strategies in Russia were flawed.
In ordering the injury-changed Junot, a once trusted maréchal, to chase-down and attack the Russian rear, Napoléon was not only let down by Junot, he was let down by himself in sending Junot in the first place. Why Junot of all commanders, a man who suffering a life-altering head wound in a past campaign. Why not Murat or Ney?
Then Napoléon found himself facing a new chief-of-staff of the opposition. Yielding to the pleas of Bagration and others, Tsar Alexander removed Barclay as head of the army. The new commander of the Russian forces was a Russian’s Russian—Prince Mikhail Kutuzov. Back from a campaign against the Ottoman Empire deep in the south, Kutuzov rode to assume his new command on 29 August, 1812, at Borodino, 84 miles from Moscow. Bringing his battle credentials with him, the new appointment of an experienced and wily Russian general—a shrewd soldier who also had survived two serious head wounds—satisfied the Russian senior command, particularly Prince Bagration, who viewed Barclay’s strategies as hopeless.
Napoléon made out he was happy with Marshal Kutuzov’s appointment. He had beaten him at Austerlitz. Only, that was 1805, in a battle fought under very different conditions, back when Napoléon, by his own estimation, was at the peak of his powers. Aged 67, Kutuzov was also definitely at the end of his career, but being a thoughtful warrior and carrying a light command style he fitted Russia’s situation and needs well.
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On September 7 1812 near a village of the same name, the Battle of Borodino began in a field—a field no more significant than any other in Russia, wrote Tolstoy.
The night before battle the two armies sat camped perhaps two football fields distance from each other, the French chewing their horse meat in silence listening to the faith-driven morale-boosting singing of the Russian army. Kutuzov knew how to rouse his men and he did so by parading before them a Russian priest who recently had been released from captivity as if he were a religious icon.
Morning came and the French and Russian forces charged each other.
Watching from a dinner table chair on a western hill, Napoléon awoke with a urinary tract infection, Staring into smoke, his brain hammered by the simultaneous firing of seven muskets and three cannon every second, he sat sullen, silent, hunched low. He was unable to have much effect on the unfolding free-for-all.
His maréchaux kept offering him ideas, but Napoléon rejected them all, his military prowess, positivist approach shrivelling to nothing when he needed his past powers most. Asked repeatedly to send in his Imperial Guard to shore up hard-pressed troops at key moments, Napoléon kept shaking his head. He wouldn’t, couldn’t commit his last piece in the chess game, the piece that defined him most—his personal bodyguard.
Watching the brave, wild but ultimately fruitless Russian defence turn into a kind-of victory for the French, Napoléon seemed listless, bereft of ideas, probably thinking: any more victories like this so far from home and I am doomed. He would have been right if he were thinking this way. Borodino provided him with a fierce historical lesson, whether he wanted to receive a lesson or not.
Summarising the day, Napoléon emphasised Russia’s losses, downplayed his own. Camped on the field where his dreams had disappeared into a smoke-filled air, Napoléon wrote to his Austrian-born wife Marie-Louise claiming Russian losses were 30,000 men, failing to mention what had happened to own men. In a letter to Maret, he wrote: “Russian losses at the Moskova are huge. It is the most beautiful battlefield I have seen thus far: there are 2,000 French and 12,000 Russian, and that is no exaggeration” (Napoléon fantasized a 1 to 6 ratio ratio of losses in favour of his own army). These days those losses are calculated as 25,000 to 28,000 men for the Grande Armée, and about 45,000 for the Russians. The loss ratio was 1 to 2. While still accruing more favourably to Napoléon, Borodino is one of the bloodiest battles ever fought by the French anywhere. So far from home it was just short of a disaster.
Meanwhile Kutuzov was realistic. Knowing both armies had suffered savage losses, he knew when to quit. He marched his broken army up the road towards Moscow. Unlike Napoléon, Kutuzov saw no victory where there was none, and no beauty in war and death. He knew how many men the Russian army had lost, and he mourned every one, particularly his best, Bagration.
The Russians buried their fallen. The French left their dead on the battlefield.
Murat wanted to take Napoléon‘s Imperial Guard and chase down and attack the stricken Russians. But Napoléon, the famed tactician, now seemed unable to divine the real from illusory in his opportunities anymore. Why did he not see military merit in Murat’s argument? The Russians were so badly wounded they could now be defeated. Why did Napoléon continue refusing to commit his Guard which he did throughout the Battle of Borodino itself. Optimism, always at the core of his military reasoning, suddenly seemed missing from his reasoning. Why was Napoléon now so consumed by self-preservation? His diary entries from Sainte Hélène mention ‘false reports, ridiculous plots, betrayal and pure stupidity’. Where did these come from? His own high command?
From one perspective of course Napoléon’s inaction after Borodino could be seen as showing a respect and sympathy for the stricken Russian army. But as Napoléon wasn’t really in Russia to show sympathy for Russian army, even if his best option already was to discuss peace proposals. As he had never shown this sort of behaviour in military engagements before, this is unlikely to be the reason. Today, of course, it is difficult to chart the thoughts that consumed his mind at this very moment. Napoléon’s objective was always to take Moscow. To do that he believed he had to keep his Imperial Guard intact. Is this why he chose to ignore Murat’s tactical reasoning? Could destroying the Russian army make taking Moscow more difficult? Not likely, either. It is possiblethat Napoléon in a dazed and confused post-traumatically stressed disordered state, thought Murat crushing the Russians in a charge from the rear, would be seen a war crime, that the French leader’s largesse in not doing os would be recognised by Russia as a whole. He could even be invited to take over their country, to find himself liked, even loved for what he had done to them and their empire.
Whatever his reasoning, in showing an unwillingness to employ his Imperial Guard against the Russians at this critical moment he lost the chance to deal the Russians a death blow. Napoléon let the Russians survive Borodino, and lost the campaign.
Moscow was for the French leader his true moment in history. He rode on, not chasing any defining military-engagement anymore, thinking only of a triumphant arrival in Moscow. For Napoléon taking the city represented everything his campaign was about. He marched on slowly behind the retreating Russians, focussing only on entering Moscow as conqueror. Still some big questions were left for him to resolve: Could he ride through Moscow’s gates and control it? How could the Grande Armée with a reduced army hold the old capital? Would Alexander ever give up his crown? Would the Russians accept Napoléon as Emperor? Or even—could Napoléon’s army open a gateway to Asia? Would he ever be as great as Alexander of Macedonia?
So many energy-consuming thoughts must have been flowing around inside his battle-curdled brain. For Marshal Kutuzov, everything was simpler. Moscow was whatever he had to do to rid Russia of the French. After the Russians troops marched through Moscow, he left the metropolis for Napoléon.
The French arrived at the gates and Napoléon waited on his horse expecting to be greeted by Moscow’s elders. When nobody came he sent Murat in to check that the city was clear of the enemy while he bedded down in a village house on the perimeter.
The next morning, the Russians still retreating south to a base camp at Kaluga, Napoléon rode into the city towards the Kremlin, still thinking and believing, deluding himself, he could and should occupy Moscow, even if only for several depressing weeks. And depressing for him it was going to be.
Napoléon controlled Moscow because the Russian army left it to him, and only after its mayor, Count Fyodor Rostopchin, made sure it was left to him in flames.
Napoléon couldn’t understand the depth of the Russian spirit of resistance. While he waited for an answer from Alexander, he watched the burning of his sacred Moscow, a city he described in a letter to Marie-Lousie as “500 palaces as beautiful as the Elysée Napoléon furnished luxuriously à la française, several imperial palaces, barracks, [and] magnificent hospitals.” He witnessed his army ransack and abuse the cradle of Russian history for five weeks. Meanwhile, Alexander ignored him.
Moscow gave Napoléon sleepless nights and 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! He remained in Moscow far too long. It was said that only in seeing the first October snowflakes did he bring himself to order his army to pack-up and leave. Or was he moved to act only when a French party he sent south to search for food was attacked by a Russian contingent? Was it that that made Napoléon realise his time was up.
Heading south seeking warmer food-stocked territories, Napoléon’s exit was soon known to the Russians. When he arrived and camped at Maloyaroslavets Kutuzov’s army attacked. Out reconnoitering with his men, some Cossacks emerged from some woods and charged, getting so close to Napoléon he was nearly captured, a shaken Napoléon saved only by the intervention of his Imperial Guard.
In his headquarters that night he listened to Murat, the calvary’s commander and bravest and most headstrong of his maréchaux arguing his tactics—They take on Kutuzov and his army in a final battle south at Kaluga, no matter how replenished the Russian army is. The French would then have access to the food they needed for the long march west.
Napoléon demurred and ordered his troops back north and west back up along the food-stripped, emptied old Moscow to Smolensk road, dragging his men by the still-shocking death scene at Borodino, a battle-field which weeks afterwards still lay covered with rotting French remains. The sight stunned even his most battle hardened men. Napoléon drove his demoralized army straight into the jaws of a freezing foodless Russian winter. With each passing mile the troops began to smell death, yet his soldiers had no choice but to march on.
Napoléon’s early missives home demonstrated his denial of the state of his retreating French army—its exhaustion and lack of winter-clothing and food. Disaster was near, yet not until 18 November, writing Maret four weeks after exiting Moscow, did Napoléon finally admit, in explicit and almost naive terms, the structural difficulties he faced, in stark contrast to an enemy in total harmony with its surroundings: “Since the last letter I sent you, our situation has worsened. Freezing conditions and a biting cold of 16 degrees [below zero on the Réaumur scale, about minus 20° C] have killed nearly all our horses, almost 30,000 of them. We have been forced to burn more than 300 artillery pieces and an immense number of transports. […] A few days of rest, some good food and above all horse and artillery equipment will set us right. But the enemy has over us experience of moving in icy conditions, something that gives him an immense advantage in winter. As we struggle to get a transport or artillery piece over the smallest defile without losing 12 or 15 horses and 12 to 15 hours, they – with their skates and specially equipped teams – move them as if there were no ice at all.”
The French went on until they were halted by the ice-filled but not frozen solid Bérézina river. It was uncrossable. An end game final battle was close at hand. Admiral Pavel Chichagov was waiting for the French on the western bank. From the north, Peter Wittgenstein was closing in with his Russian army. And a day’s march away to the east, Kutuzov rode slowly west with the rest of the Russian troops. Napoléon ordered his papers burnt.
Then Bérézina turned into a miracle escape. Not because of Napoléon, in spite of him. Having disobeyed Napoléon’s orders to jettison all his heavy bridge-building gear, General Eblé kept his pontoon equipment. Climbing down into freezing waters, Eblé and his corps of Dutch engineers constructed pontoons for troops and their ragtag followers to pass over. Most of the engineers who spent hours in the waters, building and rebuilding the pontoons, died. Eblé succumbed to the experience sometime later after arriving back in Paris.
It was Eblé who managed the miracle, and Murat who made a decoy move up river to confound Chichagov. Taking Murat’s bait, Chichagov tracked the French along the riverbank. This left the crossing point free for the French to use—for a very short time. But it was enough for Napoléon and his men to file onto the pontoons. The Swiss troops under Oudinot bravely fought off a furious, returning Chichagov. Napoléon and the bulk of his army were able to escape, the French getting across the treacherous part-frozen river by the skin of their teeth.
Their rag tag followers, the travelling support city, were not so lucky. Simply too cold or unwilling to move when ordered to, many drowned when they rushed the bridges at the very end, hearing word the pontoons were about to be destroyed. Bérézina is a tale of woe in itself, symbolizing how misguided Napoléon’s 1812 campaign truly was.
29 November, Napoléon wrote that he was “cut off from everything: It has been fifteen days since I last received any news or any dispatch, and I am in the dark on everything”. Adding: “The army is large but terribly strung out,” before instructing Maret to assemble plenty of provisions in Vilnius. “Without them,” he warned, “there is no horror that this undisciplined and unruly mob will not visit upon the city.”
30 November, Napoléon wrote: 40,000 soldiers “driven, by fatigue, cold and want of food roaming as vagabonds and looters.” Napoléon ordered: “100,000 rations of bread, without which anarchy and violence would reign in Vilnius.”
4 December he wrote Maret before crossing the Niemen, admitting now that: “The army, exhausted and worn out by the miseries it has experienced, is at the brink. It is capable of no more, not even if it were asked to defend Paris.”
Napoléon himself had it easy. Leaving his army in Bérézina, he rode south with his aide-decamp, Caulaincourt, in a sleigh to Paris. Freed from his responsibilities as the principal architect of the failed campaign, he was heard laughing uproariously, enjoying life again.
Arriving back in Paris on 19 December he was reassured by French morale. Once more he turned his mind to grandiose plans, raising new troops.
On the day of his arrival, he wrote to Murat: ‘I have arrived in Paris. I was extremely satisfied with the Nation’s resolve. They are prepared to make any sort of sacrifice, and I shall be tireless in my work to reorganise the means [at my disposal]. I already have an army of 40,000 men in Berlin and on the Oder.’
How can anyone defend this? Is it callousness or madness? Madness is part folklore, part a tale children shout at each other in streets. Madness has meanings and definitions in medicine, but when military commanders are certifiably insane what modes of censure are available for dealing with them? Probably many would say it’s wrong to call Napoléon’s invasion of Russia an act of madness—without a qualification of what ‘madness’ means in regard to his intentions.
So, should we say then, that Napoléon’s attack on Russia in 1812 was only a military misadventure? When Napoléon Bonaparte, Emperor Extraordinaire, dragged 690,000 people north across Europe to invade an independent sovereign nation, and in doing so, made a complete mess of his campaign, he only made a military miscalculation?
Perhaps Napoléon needed to be physically and psychiatrically examined before he left Paris, but no-one thought to analyse leaders that way, back then. He marched north into Russia and exited five months later with around 10,000 of his original army (10,000, who were barely in any condition to carry out any military duties). Of the travelling support team of hangers-on, few of them made it home.
Then Napoléon lost the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. Another Napoléonic army gone, ending when a panicked corporal blew up a bridge too early, trapping thousands of retreating French soldiers in the German city. By the advent of Waterloo, the other European armies and generals had worked-out Napoléon’s military tactics. Still, the question of his 1812 failures remain.
Did the Russia campaign represent a great military-leader brought down by unforeseeable events, or were the thousands upon thousands of French troops and their loyal allies needlessly sacrificed at the altar of the ego of a fly-by-the-seat of his pants soldier whose luck just ran out?
Before Russia, Napoléon was considered to be the ‘war genius’ of 18th and early 19th century Europe. If this was still true inside Russia, his decisions must have been made by another person.
The truth seems to be—by Russia, as a général, Napoléon couldn’t “cut it” anymore. Did he know? Probably. Was it the reason he kept his Imperial Guard sidelined? He knew his weaknesses and knew he needed protection.
His state of mind in his 1812 Russia campaign seems to be a major factor in the failure. The Russia campaign mirrored Napoléon‘s mental condition, which connected to his performance led directly to crises, then his failure to avert the next crisis, and failure to rectify earlier crises.
Napoléon seems to have been a victim of the cumulative war injury once known as shell-shock—now included in the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Soldiers used the term shell-shock in World War I. A British Physician and Psychologist, Charles Myers, asked by the British Army to examine the problem, wrote an article for Lancet in 1915 Myers listing symptoms of the condition and he was criticised by those who believed in medicalising shell-shock it became an excuse for cowardice and malingering.
Cowardice doesn’t sit easily next to Napoléon‘s name, not if we believe his established history and list of achievements. It takes the Russia campaign to see a fuller picture. The catastrophe in Russia resulted from his decisions that lacked inspiration and courage, but where did this spring from?
How far PTSD defines Napoléon’s performance clearly needs expert examination, but that he was a sufferer of PTSD seems quite likely given his career. After fighting so long in the artillery, it would be more surprising if his judgment weren’t affected by concussive-blows suffered over so many years.
‘Critics’ might complain that in saying Napoléon was suffering from shell-shock, a physical and psychological condition, it reduces his responsibility for the debacle he created. That is arguable, and I think it’s also arguable his maréchaux should and could have done more to prevent the campaign failing, but that would have meant mutiny.
© Lou R. Alba