Napoléon in Russia & Putin and Ukraine

with the catastrophe in Ukraine still happening let us remember December and january 210 years agowhen Napoléon led a failed campaign. Is Putin doing the same?

What explanations are there for Napoléon’s miscalculations during his invasion? Going to Russia raises questionsthough conversations with Metternich before setting off shows he once had a rational plan. Why didn’t he follow it? Putin is described as being ill, that his reasoning isn’t what it once was. Should Napoléon’s maréchaux have done more to prevent La Grande Armée’s Russia debacle? Could Vladimir Putin’s lieutenants show him the folly of his plans?

Was Napoléons failed Russia campaign due to bad luck or the mistakes of others? Or to cite Shakespeare: was the fault not in his stars but in himself

From Sainte-Hélène, Napoléon wrote: … “the defeat was not the result of the ‘efforts of the Russians’ but rather [due to] ‘complete accidentsa capital burned to the ground by foreign parties before the eyes of its inhabitantsa 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 connect 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.’

Does this post facto self-justification sound familiar?

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.” This equivalent of an incriminating tweet in 2022 shows Napoléon wished for and planned wholeheartedly for his 1812 invasion of Russia. No wriggle room anywhere. In January 6 committee and DOJ terms Napoléon is ready for indictment.

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In the sweltering European summer of 1812 Napoléon marched various elements of a 420,000 strong army, driving a city-sized mass of 690,000 soldiers and supports up through France and today’s Germany. Arriving late July at the Grand Duchy of Warzaw’s border with Russia Napoléon said his objective was to ‘speak with Alexander’only he forgot to leave his army back in Paris.

What was Napoléon’s interior-motive for this project? Did he dream only of becoming Tsar of the richest country in Europe? Or was the plan to conquer Russia then head on to the Far East, or even march south to climb the Himalayas in order to take India from the British?

Many ideas have occurred to observers in the years after 1812 went so badly, because the project still doesn’t make a lot of sense. Napoléon’s last big invasion accrued its lasting and indelible meaning inside Russia—that of a military disaster.

Subjugation of Tsar Alexander and Russia was the first task. Napoléon was said to be in Russia to demonstrate who ruled Europe. Alexander had broken the terms of the Treaties of Tilsit and Napoléon was angry. There was always ‘that reason’ to show everyone.

The Nieman River Summer 1812

At the Nieman River border with Lithuania, the most western point of the Russian Empire, the French hero fell off his emblematic white steed, joking that if he had been a Caesar in Ancient Rome he might have accepted the omen was bad and headed home.

For Napoléon there was no going back ever. That much was clear. He told everyone he was confident of victory and still thirsty for a bloody encounter. Yet some seven years earlier at Austerlitz, he also said: there were only five years left in him as a soldier.

Still, his arrival at the Nieman River made for a glorious day. The pontoon crossings went well. Nothing went wrong except for the unnecessary deaths by drowning of a contingent of Polish cavalry, who in trying to impress their leader foolishly threw themselves and their horses into the strongly flowing waters.

Once French troops were across the river a skirmish occurred after Russian cavalrymen appeared on the eastern bank. Though with some shots fired from both sides it was quickly settled. The Russians retreated.

Once inside the Russian Empire, in the first few days Napoléon marched his men up and down and around and about trying to find his opponent again. He wanted to force the Russians into a decisive battle, but he couldn’t find them anywhere. On Napoléon marched, still supremely confident of an early victory, an all-settling Russian surrender. Meanwhile the Russian troops under the German Scot, Barclay de Tolly, deftly side-stepped his advance. Eventually the French caught up with Barclay and his men at Smolensk. Seeing the Russians were now ready to make a stand, Napoléon smacked his lips—this was the moment he had been craving for.

Yet, strangely, military inventiveness suddenly deserted the 43 year old, once-described as Europe’s military genius. Failing to first secure the city’s back gate, Napoléon launched a full-frontal artillery bombardment, then sent his troops into the city in an equally full-frontal attack. It left Russia’s most able commander, Bagration, with an opportunity he didn’t ignore—the chance to replenish his troops through the open back door. Smolensk, the spiritual sister-city to Moscow was a metropolis filled with icons and fiercely patriotic Russians. Where Napoléon saw an opportunity to set the tone of his invasion, the Russians saw a real chance to deal the Frenchman and his invasion dreams a wake-up call. They succeeded.

In the battle for the city 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 in large part because Bagration kept pushing Russian reinforcements in through the open back gate.

In this symbolic campaign opener, Napoléon effectively “lost” his first test on Russian soil, because he failed to establish a clear method for overpowering and 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 a decline. The failure to establish French superiority at Smolensk was the first step in a trend in Napoléon’s dubious planning.

With casualties high on both sides, the battle for Smolensk is accorded by history as a technical victory for the French, but that is perhaps 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 most confrontations, a military fact was emerging—the defeat of Napoléon was underway.

Receiving vital support from farmers and peasantry, the Russian soldiers marched orderly towards Moscow, while the French following behind them faced the same western Russian farming communities in full resistance mode. With its supply lines stretched, Napoléon’s army forced to forage, found often only barely edible food, and in drinking ditch water, men and horses began dying.

Desertions increasing daily, troop numbers were now a growing problem for Napoléon—not only due to starvation, thirst and desertion. His men were dying in alarming numbers from a mysterious disease. Napoléon’s personal and chief army surgeon, Dominique Jean Larrey and his aide-de camp, Marquis de Caulaincourt, witnessed the dying. It is unimaginable Napoléon was unaware of what Typhus was doing to his army. Did Napoléon fail to surround Smolensk because he already knew he didn’t have the troops to manage the simultaneous tasks of securing and attacking the city? If so, then why continue chasing the Russians? Speaking with Austria’s Metternich months earlier Napoléon said he planned to build a base at Smolensk, rest there for the winter, then attack Russia’s heartland the following spring. Yet late in this stifling 1812 summer, with disease, starvation, thirst, desertion and plummeting morale ravaging his army, Napoléon changed his plans, putting 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 army in pursuit of the Russians. Barclay’s men were heading to Moscow for sound defensive reasons, while Napoléon was now engaging in a dubious military gamble. Exhibiting his first signs of desperation, craving a morale boosting victory, Napoléon refused to stop chasing the Russians. He even ordered Maréchal Junot to attack the retreating Russians from the rear. Junot ignored the order. Napoléon’s plans were 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. Russia would do whatever it took to make this defence work. It was up to the invaders to match this resolve.

Pyotr Bagration

Still, for all its shrewdness, many in the Russian command deplored Barclay’s strategic retreat. “Tell me for God’s sake,” Prince Bagration said, “what will our Russiaour 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 …”

Barclay de Tolly

To General BagrationBarclay de Tolly’s retreat displayed an absence of valour. The foreign-born army chief lacked Bagration’s natural Russian determination to defend his homeland. Barclay’s retreat demonstrated cowardice, signalled defeatism.

For his part, Napoléon was only a shadow of himself. Beset with physical ailments, his mind didn’t seem sharp. He was failing himself and his army. It was unsound strategically to drive an already-depleted army deeper into enemy territory, where the Russians could regroup and replenish their ranks. In driving his army on with insufficient food, water and rest, in pursuit of the Russians, Napoléon showed himself as a visibly ageing man losing the plot. Overwhelmed by his desire to win a conclusive battle, to create a defining moment, the once successful military campaigner had mislaid his military skills. Had the once great French general finally lost his mojo? In ordering Junot, a no-longer completely trustworthy maréchal, to attack the Russian rear, Napoléon was not only let down by Junot, he let himself and his army down by sending Junot in the first place. Why Junot of all commanders, a man continuing to suffer from a life-altering head-wound, gained from a past campaign? Why not send Murat or Ney?

Though there is another judgment of Napoléon’s approach. The Russians were still intact after Smolensk. Then, was Junot right? Any further attack now needed careful planning.

Prince Mikhail Kutuzov

Then Napoléon found himself facing a new chief-of-staff of the Russian army. Yielding to the pleas of Prince Bagration, Tsar Alexander removed Barclay from his post. The new commander of Russian forces was now a Russian’s Russian—Prince Mikhail Kutuzov. Returning from a campaign against the Ottoman Empire in the deep south, Kutuzov rode to assume his new command on 29 August, 1812, and meet his troops at Borodino, 84 miles from Moscow. With solid battle credentials, Kutuzov was an experienced and trusted Russian generala shrewd soldier who had survived two serious head wounds (neither though touching his brain as with Junot)Marshal Kutuzov satisfied the Russian senior commanders, particularly Prince Bagration, who now considered Barclay as a complete incompetent.

Predictably perhaps, Napoléon declared himself happy with Marshal Kutuzov’s appointment. He had beaten him at Austerlitz. But that was 1805 in a battle fought under different conditions, back when Napoléon was, by almost everyone’s estimation, at the peak of his powers. At 67, Kutuzov was definitely near the very end of his career, but being a thoughtful man, and exhibiting a light touch in command style, he suited Russia’s needs almost perfectly.

— — —

On September 7 1812 near to a village of the same name, the Battle of Borodino took place in an insignificant fielda field like any other, as Tolstoy described it.

Borodino face-off

The night before battle the two armies camped two football fields distance from each other, the French chewing on horse meat in silence, forced to listen to the 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 arrived and the French and Russian forces charged each other.

Having awoken with a urinary tract infection, Napoléon watched it all from a dinner chair on a western hill. Staring into smoke his brain received repetitive hammer blows of seven muskets and three cannon firing every second. Silent, hunched low, he was unable to engage effectively with the free-for-all before him.

Napoléon’s view

Meanwhile his maréchaux kept offering ideas. Napoléon rejected them all, one by one. When he most needed to be bold, begged repeatedly to send in his Imperial Guard to shore up hard-pressed troops, Napoléon kept on shaking his head. His military prowess shrivelled down to nothing, he would not, could not, commit his last piece in the chess game, the military piece that defined him in the endhis personal protection.

Watching brave Russians hold-up, turn back, the more numerous French, attack after attack moulding somehow into a kind of French victory, Napoléon was bereft of ideas. Was he thinking: any more battles like this I am doomed? He would have been right if he were thinking like this. The battle of Borodino provided him with a savage historical lesson whether he wanted one or not.


Summarising the day, he emphasised Russia’s losses, downplaying his own. Camped on the field, where his invasion dreams had disappeared into heavy smoke, Napoléon wrote to his Austrian-born wife Marie-Louise claiming that Russian losses were 30,000 men, failing to mention what had happened to his own army. 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 dead to the Grande Armée, and about 45,000 to the Russians. The loss ratio was around 1 to 2. While 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 complete disaster.

Kutuzov was realistic. Knowing both armies had suffered terrible losses, he knew when to quit, slowly marching his broken force up the road towards Moscow. Unlike Napoléon, Kutuzov saw no victory where there was none, no beauty in war or death. He knew how many men the Russian army had lost, and he mourned every one, particularly the demise of his best battle commander, General Bagration. In telling fashion, the Russians buried their fallen men, the French left their bodies on the battlefield.

Maréchal Murat wanted to take Napoléon’s Imperial Guard and chase down and attack the stricken Russians from the rear, but Napoléon, once famed as a shrewd military tactician, now seemed unable to read his opportunities for victory anymore. He ignored Murat. Yet, the Russians were so badly wounded they could now be defeated. Why did Napoléon refuse to commit his Imperial Guard?

Throughout the Battle of Borodino they were unused. Optimism, which in the past sat at the core of Napoléon’s military reasoning, suddenly was missing. He seemed consumed by self-preservation. His diary entries from Sainte Hélène mentioned ‘false reports, ridiculous plots, betrayal and pure stupidity’. Where did these false reports come from? Officers high up in his own command? Perhaps Napoléon’s inaction after Borodino could be seen as a show of respect, a soldier’s sympathy for the stricken Russian army. But as he had rarely let a chance for military victory slip by him and because he was not in Russia to demonstrate sympathy for the Russian army—even if peace was now his best hope for salvaging anything from his failing campaign—this seems unlikely to be the reason.

Two centuries later, of course, it is difficult to look inside Napoléon’s mind at that crucial moment. His objective was to take Moscow. And to do that perhaps he believed he had to keep his Imperial Guard intact. So is this why he ignored Murat’s tactical reasoning? Could destruction of the Russian army have made taking Moscow more difficult? Perhaps it is possible that Napoléon in a post-Borodino depressed state thought Murat’s ideas on crushing the Russians in a charge from the rear could be seen as a war crime, that the French leader’s largesse in holding back could be seen favourably by Russia as a whole.

War crimes? Who thought of such things in 1812?

Could Napoléon be invited to take over Russia? Would he be seen as a generous an invader as history accords Alexander the Great as once being? Could the Russians ever love Napoléon? History shows us now that the Russians were never going to accept him. That was clear to the clear-headed even before Borodino. So, whatever Napoléon’s reasoning, in showing an unwillingness to employ the Imperial Guard against the Russians at this opportune post-Borodino moment, he lost the chance to deal the Russians a death blow. Allowing them to survive he lost the campaign.

Moscow was still the French leader’s moment in history’, at least in his own head. So on he slowly rode, not chasing a new military engagement, thinking only of how he could manage his entry into Moscow. Taking Russia’s main city represented everything his campaign was about. Onward Napoléon marched his battered army, staying well behind the retreating Russians, focused now on how to take the famed city.

There were some big questions left to resolve: how could the depleted Grande Armée control the centre of Russian life? Would Tsar Alexander give up his throne? Would the Russians ever accept Napoléon as Emperor? Could Napoléon’s army open a gateway to the far east? Could Napoléon ever be as great as Alexander of Macedonia? Many energy-consuming thoughts must have been circulating in his battle stricken brain.

For Russia’s Marshal Kutuzov the way forward was quite simple. Moscow was whatever he had to do to rid the fatherland of the French. The Russians troops marched through the city and left the metropolis to Napoléon.

Arriving at the city’s gates Napoléon waited impatiently on his horse, fully 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, bedding himself down in a village house on the perimeter. The next morning, with the Russians now south of Moscow retreating to a base-camp south at Kaluga, Napoléon rode in towards the Kremlin, thinking, deluding himself, that he had to occupy Moscow, even if only for a few depressing weeks. And depressing it was going to be for him. Napoléon controlled Moscow because the Russian army left it for him. In chaos. After its mayor, Count Fyodor Rostopchin, made sure the city was soon ablaze.

Napoléon couldn’t comprehend the depth of the Russian spirit of resistance. Waiting for a letter of surrender from Alexander, he watched sacred Moscow burning down, 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.”

Napoléon witnessed his own army ransack and abuse the cradle of Russian history for five weeks. Meanwhile Alexander continued to ignore him. Moscow gave Napoléon 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 must have known the game was up. He had to, with his army now not even half its original size. Napoléon remained in Moscow far too long. He dithered. It was said that only in seeing the first October snowflakes did he bring himself to order his army to pack-up and leave. Perhaps he was moved to act when a French foraging party, sent south to find food, was attacked by a Russian contingent. Was it this event that really made Napoléon realise it was time to go? Meanwhile the Russian army was regrouping fast, as Napoléon’s troops were even faster becoming an undisciplined rabble of looters.

Heading south to the promise of warmer food-stocked territories, Napoléon’s exit was soon known to the Russians. They had spies in Moscow. They had spies everywhere. When the French arrived at Maloyaroslavets, Kutuzov’s army attacked. Riding out to reconnoiter with his men in the aftermath of another disturbing encounter, Cossack cavalrymen charged Napoléon’s party. Appearing from out of some woods the Cossacks got so close to the French leader he was nearly captured, with Napoléon saved only by the quick intervention of his Imperial Guard.

Back in his headquarters that night he listened to Murat, his brave calvary commander and most headstrong of his maréchaux, arguing his ideas for a dangerous attack on Kutuzov—Napoléon should take on the Russians at Kaluga. No matter how replenished the Russians were, the French would beat them, gaining access to the food they needed for the long march home along the more southern route.

Napoléon listened but demurred, ordering his troops back north and west back up along the food-stripped, battle-ruined old Moscow to Smolensk road, dragging his men by the still-shocking death scene at Borodino—a battle-field which weeks afterwards still lay littered with rotting French remains. The sight stunned even his most battle hardened men.

Napoléon drove a demoralised army straight into the jaws of a freezing Russian winter on an ice-covered food-less road. With each passing mile, the smell of death was everywhere, his troops mostly walking themselves west, dragging their Moscow-looted booty behind them.

Napoléon’s letters home demonstrated how much in denial he was over the state of his army—its exhaustion, lack of winter clothing and food. With disaster closing in, on 18 November, when writing Maret four weeks after exiting Moscow, Napoléon finally admitted, in explicit and almost naive terms, the structural difficulties he faced: “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.”

Intermittently attacked by Cossack raiding parties, the French staggered on until they were halted at the ice-filled but not quite frozen-solid Bérézina river. The river was uncrossable. It looked like Napoléon’s end game had arrived. A final battle was at hand. With Admiral Pavel Chichagov waiting for the French on the western bank, and north, Peter Wittgenstein closing in with his Russian army, and a day away to the east, Kutuzov slowly marching towards the retreating French with the rest of the Russian troops, Napoléon ordered his papers burnt.

Yet, Bérézina turned into Napoléon’s miracle escape. Not because of but in spite of him. Having disobeyed direct orders to jettison all his heavy bridge-building gear, Général Eblé crucially retained his pontoon equipment. Climbing down into freezing waters, Eblé and his corps of Dutch engineers constructed pontoons for French troops and the ragtag followers to walk over. The engineers spent hours in the freezing waters building and rebuilding the pontoons—twice—because a repair was needed. Eblé’s men died as a result of their mammoth efforts, Eblé succumbing to the experience after arriving home in Paris.

Général Eblé managed the impossible, together with Murat who made a noisy decoy move up river, managing to confound Chichagov, who thought the French now planned to cross the river elsewhere. Taking Murat’s bait, Chichagov tracked the French miles along the river, leaving the Bérézina pontoons free for Napoléon’s troops to use—for a few short hours, still it was enough for him and his troops to file over.

On the west bank, an incandescent Admiral Chichagov raced back only to meet brave Swiss troops under Général Oudinot who defended the French crossing down to the last of their corps. Napoléon and the bulk of his army escaped, his troops getting across the treacherous part-frozen river by the skin of their chattering teeth. The Grande Armée’s rag-tag followers support city were not so lucky. Too cold and demoralised to move when ordered to, many drowned when they rushed the bridges at the end, upon hearing the pontoons were about to be destroyed. Bérézina is a tale of woe, underlining how misguided Napoléon’s 1812 campaign was.

29 November Napoléon wrote 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.”

As his history shows, Napoléon managed this sort of military failure more than once. At Bérézina, once again he got off lightly. Convincing his generals it was best if he left for Paris, he deserted another army, leaving his men behind, riding south with his aide-de-camp Caulaincourt in a sleigh. Freed from the responsibility of being the principal architect of another failed campaign, Napoléon was heard laughing uproariously.

Back in Paris, 19 December, reassured by morale he found, he turned his mind once again to grandiose plans. On the very day of his arrival he wrote to Murat that he was raising another army: ‘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 this be defended? Is it madness? Hubris. Both. Madness is part folklore, a tale children shout at each other in streets. It has meaning in Psychiatry. But when military commanders demonstrate themselves to be certifiably insane what censures are available for dealing with them?

Many would say it is wrong to call Napoléon’s invasion of Russia an act of a mentally ill man—without defining what ‘madness’ means exactly, analysing his state-of-mind scientifically. Let us say then, that in his attack on Russia in 1812, Napoléon, Emperor Extraordinaire, military adventurer, in marching, cajoling 690,000 humans northward across Europe to invade the sovereign nation of Russia, he unfortunately messed up a perfectly acceptable plan, due to some minor miscalculations.

Perhaps Napoléon needed to be physically and psychiatrically examined before he left Paris but no-one even thought of analysing leaders that way back then. He force-marched 690,000 north into Russia and exited five months later with around 10,000 of his original force—10,000 humans who were barely in any condition to carry out any duties let alone military tasks. Of the support team of hangers-on, few survived.

One year later he lost the Battle of Leipzig. Another Napoléonic army gone, ending when a panicked corporal blew up a bridge early, trapping thousands of fleeing French soldiers still in the German city. By 1815 and Waterloo, European armies and generals had pretty-well worked out Napoléon’s time-worn tactics.

These final battles have been thoroughly examined, explained, but questions of his 1812 failures remain. Did the 1812 Russia campaign represent a great military-leader brought down by unforeseeable events, or were the thousands upon thousands of French troops and loyal allies needlessly sacrificed on the altar of the ego of a fly-by-the-seat of his pants gambling-freak soldier whose luck just ran out?

Or would a young Napoléon—in his right mind—have known that even by Smolensk the game was up? When the troops at his disposal were already suddenly reduced. When men were deserting, supplies short. Typhus was raging.

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 the time of Russia in 1812, as a général, Napoléon couldn’t ‘cut it’ anymore. Was he aware of his decline? Yes. He kept his Imperial Guard sidelined. He knew his weaknesses and like an ageing mob boss he knew he needed protection. Was he in the end a military-gangster who surrounded himself with gunmen in order to survive? His overly self-protective state-of-mind in the 1812 campaign seems to be a major factor of its failure.

Russia 1812 was perhaps more than a misadventure. Napoléon’s failure to analyse and manage evolving crises, meant each new failure only worsened matters for his army and himself. Reaching for medical reasons, by 1812, Napoléon seems to have been a victim of the cumulative war injury known as shell-shock, now corralled under Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A British Physician and Psychologist, Charles Myers, when asked by the British Army to examine the emergent problem, wrote an article for Lancet in 1915, listing his findings. He was criticised by many military decision-makers who believed the medicalising of shell-shock Myers allowed the condition to become an excuse for cowardice and malingering. Do Napoléon’s 1812 symptoms paint him as a PTSD victim coward malingerer?

In conventional historical analysis, ‘malingering coward’ doesn’t sit easily next to Napoléon Bonaparte’s name, yet the Russia campaign presents another portrait of the man. His failures inside Russia, his military in-decision, lack of inspiration, and seemingly occasional absences of courage, raise several questions.

How far PTSD defines his performance needs further examination, but that he was a sufferer of PTSD seems a cumulative probable result of his long career in the artillery—and a reasonable cause for his impaired-thinking inside Russia. So long in the artillery, it would be surprising if his judgment were not somehow affected by the continuing concussive blows in twenty years of engagements.

If Napoléon were suffering from PTSD, would it reduce his responsibility for the 1812 invasion? Should we, 200 years after 1812, bring him to account for war crimes inside Russia? His maréchaux could have done more—even if it meant mutiny. But when did they need to act? After Smolensk—Borodino—Moscow?

© Lew Collins

71 Films

Years ago I saw and argued in print with a Hong Kong reviewer, who disparaged the film. And now I see how right I was to defend it!

Great performance by Al Pacino, in a deft screenplay, whose power is masked by the film presenting itself more as entertainment than biting satire – a film that puts the New York legal system to the blade.

A Rainy Day in New York

From the moment in Annie Hall when he led Marshall McLuhan out from behind a film hoarding in a New York cinema I have been a huge fan of Woody Allen. He is America’s best writer director of ensemble urban comedies – truly a unique filmmaker.

Exposure by Robert Bilott

Robert Bilott’s ‘auto-documentary’ book, Exposure, on Du Pont’s chemical pollution in Parkersburg, West Virginia, is a sobering look at the immorality of corporate America in recent times.

This searing study of how greed drives so much economic activity in America, Robert Bilott’s story was first revealed to me when I recently saw the film Dark Waters – a Todd Hayes (directed) and Mark Ruffalo (produced and acted) film, well worthy of several nominations in this year Hollywood awards round. It received none. I think we get the picture why.

Bilott tells us the whole story. It begins his ‘unusual’ jumping the fence from his law firm’s usual corporate defence work to take on a plaintiff’s case, for a West Virginia farmer, Earl Tennant, who showed up at his office with a mountain of supporting evidence.

Rob Bilott discovers how Du Pont had been for years dumping poisonous waste from its Washington Works plant at Parkersburg, West Virginia, into landfills which leached into rivers, streams, ponds, killing cattle and compromising the health of inhabitants in a wide area. 

This story of corporate harm shows the casual, arrogant and ugly ease with which a powerful corporation can engage in immoral practices, in the name of business as usual. Initially rebuffed by Du Pont, Bilott convinced the courts to order the company to agree to settle, following an independent scientific investigation into the harm done by a chemical PFOA, used for many products, famously in Teflon, gathering huge worldwide profit source and spinner for Du Pont. 

It takes years for results from an exhaustive scientific study of the blood samples of nearly 70,000 people in the immediate and surrounding areas, to come back with findings of clear probable cause links to several major life threatening and life-altering diseases and conditions. Du Pont ruined natural water and piped-water supplies meaning that many were already suffering, some dying, from directly associated diseases and conditions. 

A jury finally finds for a class civil action against the company – who put up a fierce and at times devious public relations & legal defence – the plaintiffs awarded a 670 million dollar settlement against a corporate giant. Du Pont appealed and appealed then in the face of the unshifting evidence folded and accepted the decision. 

This ‘environmental crime’ was aided and abetted by the EPA who worked in tandem with Du Pont to obfuscate key facts of a chemical dumping program from the public, Du Pont carrying on its harmful activities for years in plain sight, abusing the basic trust its economic stranglehold over the small trusting community. As the town’s main employer, Du Pont had the cold, while knowing PFOA was an extremely dangerous substance for all life forms. 

In summary, this is a fine book and a necessary read for people who want clean land, air and water and a reasonable chance at living life without corporations poisoning them or providing them with cancer. Also it is for anyone who believes that honest and accountable corporate activities are needed in a properly managed legal environment, held to decnet norms created in a democratically governed society in the 21st century. 

Without Earl Tennant bringing this to Robert Bilott’s attention and Bilott deciding to take the career risk of bringing this civil action on behalf of Earl and many others, for so many stress-filled years of his life, we may never have even heard about Du Pont’s malfeasance.

In a run up to the class-action trial, Du Pont spun off its Washington Works plant into a new company, Chemours, in a technique many companies use to limit financial damage by placing the offending product range under another firm, that can easily be tipped in bankruptcy thus preventing a payout. After years of seeing how Du Pont operated Robert Bilott was ready for the tactic.

Stanley’s say

I recently saw Stanley Tucci’s 1964 Paris set Final Portrait, with Geoffrey Rush playing the lead, artist, painter Alberto Giacometti.

Not much happens in terms of the old story plot nexus but a lot goes on.

Verdict: Wonderful film, brilliantly observed. Great cast and script. Funny ironic tender sad cruel. Bring on more Stanley. 9/10

I’d give it ten out of ten but no films hit that high for me. Music, painting, literature, yes. Films, no. Too many departments, too many hands on deck for something not to go wrong somewhere.

Europe & Freedom of Movement

As Brexit continues morphing out over the coming months, I think we should begin sharing experiences of what it has been like to live in and freely travel around Europe before our rights disappear. The ‘good’ the young of Britain in particular are about to lose.

Automatic right to be and travel inside Europe without a visa, attend universities, work without foreigner status conditions, to learn languages, share in the life as citizens of Europe with equal rights.

What the Europe Union does so well is not to look towards obvious economic stimulants as bridges to future social, cultural and economic activity, but to social and cultural stimulants, which when aggregated from individual life-changing experiences multiply in exponential societal ways, not only across Europe but across the world. Europe is a civil and cultural force unlike any other.

Here is an early pre-FOM personal European experience, before freedom of movement was instituted, but giving reason to why it is so good for societies and individuals.

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus. The ancient Odeon, built by Herod Atticus 161 AD, situated at the foot of the rock of the Acropolis with the Parthenon as a backdrop. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus written up by Vernon Kidd in the New York Times, describing a 1981 Athenian summer component in a plethora of Europe-wide festivals, The Athens Festival awaiting travellers… “plays of Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes … presented by the National Theater of Greece, the Amphi-Theater, the Art Theater and Northern Greece State Theater. Tickets: from $1.20 to $6. July 5 to Sept. 25.” As Kidd’s NY times article detailed, Ancient Greek theatre in the ancient Odeon was only a small part of a Europe-wide extravaganza of arts festivals in the summer of 1981.

So, unaware of any of the above, one hot early July ’81 evening I wandered up the road from my Plaka hotel to the Acropolis, this young filmmaker then resident of Hong Kong. As darkness gathered, I sat myself on a wall to take in the dusk scene at a spot overlooking the lit-up Odeon of Herodes Atticus theatre. A rehearsal was going on way down below. Intrigued very quickly by what I saw, I hiked down the hill to find out what it was I was watching. A poster outside the Odeon announced the Athens Summer Festival’s showing of The Acharnians by Aristophanes. Had I see an Aristophanes play before? No.

I returned to my hotel and the next day bought a ticket for the play at a ticket outlet – (prices of the day ranging from $1.20 to $6). I found a Penguin translation of the play in a bookshop, read it, and no wiser I have to say set off a night later to see the performance.

The Acharnians was first performed in 426 BC. A strident anti-war play it is credited with being the oldest staged Greek comedy. I didn’t know what to expect because the Penguin translation did not make anything clear. Still, I had seen the rehearsal. That was enough. The play itself would do the rest.

The Odeon theatre is an extraordinary space, but on a hot July summer night it is other-worldly. The night air made translucent by light was alive with what looked like tiny floating tips of flowers, rising in the warm air all throughout the amphitheatre. In jeans, t-shirt, sandals surrounded by Greeks in evening dress I felt a rank outsider. Yet nobody cared.

What truly resonates with me most, nearly forty years later, is how an ancient play, interpreted, performed and directed as it was, was soon so relevant for a 1981 audience. Filled with dance, mime, mask, and music, George Kounis’ (or Kouns’) production lifted me off my seat. This was not a stilted play from Ancient Greece, a production I remembered too well from university productions. The Penguin translation was swept from my mind.

Dicæopolis, a native of Acharnæ and an ex-soldier returns disillusioned from the Persian wars, heartsick at the miseries and stupidities of the conflict. Not shy in making his views known, with earthy gestures he rails against fellow citizens, while a chorus of startled, indignant citizens in white masks, odd hats and fantastic bed square sewn quilt costumes, rush in dance formation from one side of the stage to the other, all to a cacophony of startling music and sound effects, remonstrating with him and each other. The audience was in stitches inside minutes. I didn’t understand a word yet understood everything.

As a writer it is hard to communicate the effect this experience has had on me: the hot July night, the western world’s most ancient comedy, the mime, dance, costume, design and performances, Greeks all around me ‘rolling in aisles’, the old director helped on stage after the performance – I felt as if theatre itself, not only the ancient Greek concept of  ‘spectacle,’ had finally been made clear to me.


photograph by and courtesy of Berthold Werner 2017

Australian Capsule Homes?

Is this the future face of home-building in Australia?

Do we build homes with exteriors and window glass that can resist up to two thousand degrees celsius? Homes with internal energy reserves, water and food storage recycling and creation systems.

While Australian Liberal National Party politicians decide whether or not to add the words “wind” and “solar” and “hydrogen” and “wave” to their vocabularies, decide whether to expand their comprehension of the word “energy” to include the current ‘impossible’ — the consignment of coal to the graveyard — the exterior of a house could be sealed against extreme weather patterns. All substances even wood can be used inside. Is this too radical for you? What do we do over the continuing fires?

If we could force the political climate change deniers to take early parliamentary retirement, then as a society join with each other in to turning global warming around we might still be in time to stop the human project’s slide to the bottom, stop the  immorality of condemning other life forms sharing this planet with us to an unnatural slide in to oblivion.

Tuscan Retreat

With Brexit still breathing down Britain’s neck, I wanted to revisit a blog I did some time ago, to celebrate the very best of British production, in my view – the Landrover – and how this journey back (together with the journey down) opened up Europe for me, travelling across France and in to Italy.

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So many journeys so many memories, to and from London and our place in Tuscany, Italy. Nostalgia? Absolutely, completely. I feel the need to revisit these memories before the Brexit maniacs get their way and destroy what is beautiful and sustainable in Freedom of Movement. The camping grounds I stopped at in France were extraordinarily well-managed, great facilities, and so reasonable in price. It made driving the long hours an absolute joy.

The first trip back to London took me up through Italy from Tuscany up through Piemonte to Valle d’Aosta, which led me (countless times) to les Alpes, driving up over the Great St Bernard Pass (il Passo del Gran San Bernardo) that first time down into Switzerland in brilliant sunshine, at four on a September afternoon. Around Lake Geneva to Lausanne I went, arriving at Pontarlier in the dark. I found a parking spot just outside the entrance to a Péage, heading to God knows where. I was absolutely exhausted. After a night of waking up, dozing in the front seat of the old beast, I shook myself conscious and crawled on toward Troyes (seeing the periphery), going on, then around in circles late afternoon south-east of Paris struggling to discover a municipal campsite. Finally I did, coming upon Méry-sur-Seine, a tiny hamlet south-east of Paris.

I parked on the grass and walked in to the village, got something to eat – do I remember what I ordered? No, but whatever it was it was very, very good. I know that. I walked back and set up my mattress in the back of the beast, extending out over a table top I had made especially with a trestle to support it. With a tarpaulin attached to the roof rack and reaching down and pegged in to to the ground all around, fresh country air flowed in all around me. I slept the sleep of angels. To this day I can’t recall a sleep so sound (maybe one other). It rained all night and I never felt a drop.

Waking up at six I packed up like a single person army on the march. I was gone in minutes, driving around to find the right route north, until I stopped at a café for breakfast, café au lait, a croissant and advice how to drive en direction de Meaux skirting north-east Paris, on through the northern cities. I reached Calais at four in the afternoon. Crossing the channel by ferry to Dover, I arrived home in east London at around ten at night. My old landrover only did fifty miles an hour.

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That voyage in 2006 I will never forget. I have done the same trip many times in the years since then, in two separate Landrovers (old and new). My last defender model (2013), took me via different routes, but the first trip from Tuscany in the battered old Series Three has never ever been bettered.