Napoléon in Russia & Putin in the Ukraine

With this year’s catastrophe in the Ukraine still on our radars, let us remember 210 years agoback when Emperor Napoléon lost himself inside a similar space. Napoléon’s maréchaux could have done more to prevent La Grande Armée’s 1812 debacle in Russia, as Vladimir’s lieutenants could do more now to show Vladimir the folly of his plans. Were Putin and Napoléon both ill when they embarked on their invasions?

Vladimir Putin is staying out of harm’s way whereas Napoléon travelled with his army—as did Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar and Genghis Khan. If Putin had travelled with his generals would the Ukrainian conflict now 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.”

— — —

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

What was Napoléon’s real motive for this massive project? Did he dream of becoming Tsar of the richest country in Europe? Was the plan to conquer Russia then head on to the Far East, or if not, did Napoléon dream of marching south and climbing the Himalayas to take India from the British?

Many ideas have occurred to observers in subsequent years because the main one 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 in Russia to demonstrate who ruled Europe. Alexander had broken the terms of the Treaties of Tilsit and Napoléon was angry about that. There was always that reason to fall back on.

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, that he was still thirsty for a bloody encounter, yet some seven years earlier at Austerlitz, he had said—presciently, ruefully? Did he foresee his future?—there was 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, except for the unnecessary deaths by drowning of some 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 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.

The Nieman River Summer 1812

Once inside the Russian Empire Napoléon marched his men around in the first days trying to find his opponent. The first objective? Force the Russians into an early decisive battle. But Napoléon couldn’t find them anywhere. On he marched 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 side-step Napoléon’s advance.

Eventually, Napoléon caught up with Barclay and his men at Smolensk. Seeing the Russians were now ready to make a stand, he smacked his lips—this was the moment he had been craving for.

But military inventiveness had deserted the 43 year old Frenchman. In failing to close the city’s ‘ back door’, Napoléon launched an artillery bombardment, sending his troops in through ‘the front door’ in a full-frontal attack, giving Russia’s most famous General, Prince Bagration, a clear, unhindered opportunity, one Russia’s most able commander didn’t ignore—to replenish, reinforce his troops through ‘the 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 their 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 the main 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 his decline. The failure to establish French superiority at Smolensk was the first step in a trend in Napoléon’s poor planning.

With casualties high on both sides, the battle for Smolensk is accorded by history as a technical victory to the French, but that is largely due to the Russian retreating 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 farmers and peasantry, the Russian soldiers marched back 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 had to forage for often barely edible food, and in drinking stagnant ditch water, men and horses began dying. Desertions increased daily.

Troop numbers were now a growing problem for Napoléon, not only due to starvation, thirst and desertion. Napoléon’s men were 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 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 carry-out 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 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 anymore, 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 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 …”

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 the homeland. Barclay’s retreat demonstrated cowardice, signalled defeatism.

For his part, Napoléon was only a shadow of himself. Beset by 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 find 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 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 still suffering a life altering head-wound from a past campaign? Why not send Murat or Ney?

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 as head of the defence. The new commander of Russian forces was now 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 solid battle credentials with him, the new appointment of an experienced and trusted Russian generala shrewd soldier who himself had survived two serious head wounds (neither though touching his brain as with Junot)Kutuzov satisfied the Russian senior commanders, particularly Prince Bagration, who now considered Barclay as an incompetent.

Predictably perhaps, Napoléon declared himself happy with Marshal Kutuzov’s appointment. He had beaten Kutusov 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 too at the 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 field, a field like any other, as Tolstoy described it.

The face off

The night before battle two armies sat camped two football fields distance from each other, the French chewing on 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.

Having awoken with a urinary tract infection, watching from a dinner table chair on a western hill, Napoléon stared into smoke as his brain was hammered by the firing of seven muskets and three cannon every second. He sat silently, hunched low, seemingly unable to engage effectively with the free-for-all before him.

Napoléon’s view

His maréchaux kept offering him ideas but Napoléon rejected them all, his old military prowess shrivelled down to nothing. When he most needed to be bold, he was begged repeatedly to send in his Imperial Guard to shore up hard-pressed troops. Only, Napoléon kept shaking his head. He wouldn’t, couldn’t, commit his last piece in the chess game, the piece that defined him mosthis personal protection.

Watching the brave, wild but ultimately fruitless Russian defence turn into a kind-of victory for the French, Napoléon seemed listless. Bereft of ideas, was he 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 one or not.


Summarising the day, of course he emphasised Russia’s losses, downplaying his own. Camped on the field where his invasion dreams had disappeared into smoke, Napoléon wrote to his Austrian-born wife Marie-Louise claiming 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 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 complete disaster.

For his part, Kutuzov was realistic. Knowing both armies had suffered savage losses, he knew when to quit, slowly marching his broken army 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 dead soldier, particularly the demise of his best, General Bagration. And while the Russians buried their fallen men, the French left bodies on the battlefield.

Murat wanted to take Napoléon’s Imperial Guard and chase down and attack the stricken Russians, but Napoléon, once the famed military tactician, now seemed unable to read his battle opportunities 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 itself they were unused. Optimism, always at the core of Napoléon’s military reasoning suddenly was missing. Napoléon 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?

Looking back, 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 Napoléon was not in Russia to demonstrate sympathy for the Russian army—even if his best option now was a peace treaty. As he had never shown sympathy for the enemy before in military engagements this is unlikely to be the reason. Two centuries later, of course, it is difficult to chart the thoughts that consumed his mind at that crucial moment. His main objective was to take Moscow. And to do that he believed rightly 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? Unlikely. Perhaps it is possible that Napoléon in his post-battle depressive state, thought Maréchal 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. Could he be invited to take over their country? Could Napoléon be seen as a generous invader? Would the Russians love him for what he had done? Hardly possible. The Russians were never going to accept him. Whatever his reasoning, in showing an unwillingness to employ the Imperial Guard against the Russians at this opportune moment Napoléon lost the chance to deal the Russians a death blow. Allowing them to survive he lost the campaign.

Moscow was in the French leader’s mind his moment in history’, so on he rode, not chasing any military engagement anymore, thinking only of his entry into Moscow. For Napoléon taking Russia’s main city represented everything his campaign was about. So, on he marched behind the retreating Russians, focusing on how to take Moscow as a real conqueror should.

There were questions left to resolve: Could he ride into Moscow city and control it? How could the Grande Armée ever control this centre of Russian life? Would Tsar Alexander give up his throne? Would the Russians accept Napoléon as Emperor? Or even—could Napoléon’s army open a gateway to Asia? Could he ever be as great as Alexander of Macedonia? Many energy-consuming thoughts had probably taken over his battle-damaged, stricken brain.

For Marshal Kutuzov, the way forward was quite simple. Moscow was whatever he had to do to rid Russia of the French. After the Russians troops marched through the city, they 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. Only, nobody came. Napoléon 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 still retreating to a base-camp south at Kaluga, Napoléon rode in towards the Kremlin, thinking no doubt, deluding himself, that he could and should 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 aflame.

Napoléon couldn’t comprehend the depth of the Russian spirit of resistance. Was this all due to more self-delusion? He waited for a letter of surrender from Alexander, watching 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 army ransack and abuse the cradle of Russian history for five weeks. Meanwhile, Alexander ignored 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!

Napoléon 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 foraging party, sent south to find food, was attacked by a Russian contingent? Was it this event that made Napoléon realise it was time to leave?

Heading south to warmer food-stocked territories, Napoléon’s exit was soon known to the Russians, who had spies everywhere. When the French arrived at Maloyaroslavets, Kutuzov’s army attacked. Out reconnoitering with his men, Cossack cavalrymen charged from some woods, getting so close to Napoléon he was nearly captured, with the French leader saved only by the intervention of his Guard.

In his headquarters that night he listened to Murat, his brave calvary commander and most headstrong of his maréchaux, arguing his ideas—France should take on Kutuzov and his army in a battle south at Kaluga. No matter how replenished the Russian army is, the French must fight to get access to the food they needed for the march home.

Napoléon 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 covered with rotting French remains. The sight stunned even his most battle hardened men. Napoléon drove a demoralized army straight into the jaws of a freezing foodless Russian winter. With each passing mile, the smell of death everywhere, his troops marched on, 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. 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 his 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 quite-frozen solid Bérézina river. Uncrossable Bérézina was Napoléon’s end game. A final battle was close at hand. Admiral Pavel Chichagov waited for the French on the western bank. North, Peter Wittgenstein was closing in with his Russian army. A day’s march away to the east, Kutuzov was slowly closing in from the west with the rest of the Russian troops, Napoléon ordered his papers burnt.

Yet, 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, Général Eblé kept 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 waters building and rebuilding the pontoons, and most died. Eblé succumbed to the experience sometime later after arriving back in Paris.

It was Général Eblé who managed the miracle. And Murat 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. It was enough for Napoléon and his men to file over the pontoons. On the west bank an incandescent, returning Admiral Chichagov met Swiss troops under Oudinot who bravely defended the crossing down to their last. Napoléon and the bulk of his army escaped, the French getting across the treacherous part-frozen river by the skin of their chattering teeth.

Their rag tag followers, the travelling support city, were not so lucky. Simply too cold to move when ordered to, many drowned when they finally rushed the bridges at the very end, upon 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 got 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 another failed campaign, he was heard laughing uproariously, enjoying life again. Back in Paris on 19 December, reassured by French morale in the capital, once more he turned his mind to grandiose plans—raising another army.

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 callousness or is it madness? Madness of course is part folklore, part a tale children shout at each other in streets. It has meaning and definition in medicine but when military commanders are certifiably insane what modes of censure are available to the sane for dealing with them? Many would say it is wrong to call Napoléon’s invasion of Russia an act of madness—without qualification of what ‘madness’ means in regard to intentions. So, should we say then, that in an attack on Russia in 1812, Napoléon Bonaparte, Emperor Extraordinaire, military misadventurer, in marching, really forcing, 690,000 humans north across Europe to illegally enter an independent nation, to make a complete mess of a stupid campaign, 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.

Later in 1813, Napoléon lost the Battle of Leipzig. Another Napoléonic army gone, all-ending when a panicked corporal blew up a bridge too early, trapping thousands of retreating French soldiers in the German city. By 1815 and the battle of Waterloo, 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 the 1812 campaign seems to be a major factor in its failure. The Russia misadventure, in mirroring Napoléon’s mental condition, connected directly to the French army’s performance as each battle occurred. Napoléon’s failure to correctly analyse and then manage the evolving crises meant each new failure only worsened matters for his army and himself.

By 1812, was Napoléon 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. Myers was criticised by many who believed the medicalising of shell-shock led the condition to becoming an excuse for cowardice and malingering.

Cowardice doesn’t sit easily next to Napoléon’s name, not if we believe history’s general account of him. The Russia campaign presents an entirely different picture of the man. The failures in Russia, tied to his military decisions showing a lack of inspiration, even courage, leave so many questions.

How far PTSD defines Napoléon’s performance needs expert examination, but that he was a sufferer of PTSD seems probable given his career. After serving so long in the artillery, it would be surprising if his judgment were not affected by the continuum of concussive-blows accumulated throughout his military career.

Critics might complain that saying Napoléon was suffering from PTSD, a physical and psychological condition, reduces the French leader’s responsibility for the 1812 debacle. That is arguable. I think a more-useful argument would be: Napoléon’s maréchaux could have done more to prevent the failure—even if it meant mutiny.

© 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 an angry lone quite desperate West Virginia farmer, Earl Tennant, who \showed up at his office carrying a mountain of evidence.

What Rob Bilott discovered demonstrates 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 and ponds, killing cattle and compromising the health of many 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 took 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.