Napoléon & Trump: the desserts of self-delusion – 3

Coming back to the comparison between sometimes-thought-of-as-great Napoléon and never-could-ever-be-great Donald we can see one huge similarity. Both men were/are terminally self-deluding, especially when under stress.

Trump in his mismanagement of Covid-19 uttered lie after lie. Equally Napoléon during his extraordinarily ill-fated Russia campaign of 1812 misplaced the truth whenever he opened his mouth abroad or wrote a letter back home.

From Sainte-Hélène Napoléon’s take on his failure in Russia was this: … “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 almost ascribed one weakness, one 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.’  

Napoléon’s Russia-campaign preparations began in 1811. Writing to his brother Jerome on 27 January 1812, the great self-deceiver said: “I have had to assemble my armies, train them, and reconstitute my equipment. These preparations have taken a year.”

Look at the map. Napoléon crossed a huge section of Europe with over 420,000 armed soldiers in a moveable city of 690,000 – and yet he says he had no urge to fight. Then why not go with his staff to speak with Alexander, leaving the army home?

Once inside the Russian Empire, Napoléon rode his men around in the first weeks of the big campaign desperately seeking the Russians – to have what? A chat, a picnic perhaps?

The truth is Napoléon was bullying Russia with his army, trying to force a decisive battle, hoping for an easy victory. Napoléon expected (in his self-delusion) an early Russian surrender.

To say he did not intend to fight shows that Napoléon was as much a pathological liar as Trump, or that his brain was not working well. My central thesis. By Sainte-Hélène at least but most-probably well before that, Napoléon was mentally ill. As self-deluded as Donald Trump. In fact, self-delusion is a core element in both men’s mental illnesses.

We have heard and unfortunately digested Trump’s tweets, too many in ALL CAPS, but let’s now look at some 1812 Napoléonic gems written into letters and collected by archivists.

From his many letters, early-on Napoléon exuded supreme confidence. He was so confident of victory, completely underestimating both Russian military capabilities and troop strengths. At Borodino he emphasised Russian losses, and downplayed, even ignored his own. Writing to Marie-Louise 8 September, he says that Russian “losses could be estimated at 30,000 men”, without saying anything of his own troop-losses. Then, later in a letter to Maret, he writes with glee, saying: “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” (1 to 6 ratio). These days those losses are calculated as 25,000 to 28,000 men for the Grande Armée, and about 45,000 for the Russians.

It is clear that the loss ratio (1 to 2 almost) accrued to Napoléon’s army makes Borodino the bloodiest battle fought by the French and allies. Yet Napoléon kept to his resolute “self-deluding-optimism” (remind you of anyone?)

Napoléon was slow in understanding that the war for the Russians was a fight to the death, which meant the Russian people, sovereign and army, were ready to do whatever they had to do to rid themselves of the intruders. Napoléon couldn’t comprehend that the Russians – military and civilian – were prepared go to any end, commit any act, to stop the French army.

Napoléon seemed unprepared for this, expressing bewilderment upon hearing that German-language pamphlets had been distributed by the Russians, urging German members “of the Grande Armée to desert.”

Napoléon abandoned attempts to encourage Russian serfs to rebel against Russian landowners – writing to Eugene on 5 August: “tell [me] what sort of decree or proclamation we could make to incite revolt amongst the serfs of Russia and rally them to our cause”. This project was quickly dropped by Napoléon “in the face of a virulent popular patriotism.”

Not to comprehend even part of this sentiment underlines, either the poor intelligence he was getting, though more it indicates the level of Napoléon’s self-delusion.

The sacrifice the Russians made in burning Moscow, a city Napoléon 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”.

The burning of Moscow shocked Napoléon so much he wrote to Alexander asking how the tsar, “with all his principles, heart and integrity, could have authorised such excess unworthy of a great sovereign and a great nation”.

For Napoléon, this was the “turning point in the campaign.” Yet, any military leader worth his medals would have realised that Smolensk and Borodino combined spelt defeat IN CAPITALS for the Grande Armée – the invading force was now already outnumbered, poorly supplied, and very, very far from home.

Coupled to this, Russian support and love for their tsar was utterly unmoveable. And all Napoléon really achieved was to make this an even more unshakeable truth.

Napoléon’s letters also show an incomprehension of the state of his own army – the lack of clothing, provisions. Disaster was near, but not until 18 November, writing Maret four weeks after exiting Moscow, did Napoléon admit ‘in explicit and almost naive terms the structural difficulties he faced, in 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 crossing of his desperate army at Bérézina (done despite Napoléon, not because of him), the letters to Maret reveal a mind ‘getting the idea’ that the situation was catastrophic – just before he deserted his men and rode off to Paris, in fact.

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, he wrote: 40,000 soldiers “driven, by fatigue, cold and want of food [were] roaming as vagabonds and looters.” He ordered: “100,000 rations of bread, without which – he noted ominously – anarchy and violence would reign in Vilnius.”

4 December Napoléon wrote Maret before crossing the Niemen, admitting 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.”

Yet riding with Caulaincourt in a sleigh to Paris Napoléon was soon laughing uproariously. Back in Paris, 19 December “reassured by the country’s morale, the French emperor once more turned his mind to grandiose plans and the raising of 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.”

That’s Napoléonic self-delusion for you.