The Lost Opportunity
Had they followed the contemporary conventions of war, the Russians would have fought to protect their country from the invading French. Presumably they have lost — they lost every time they did stand and fight — and would then agreed terms that would have included supporting their unwelcome guests. Instead the Russians retreated, burning their fields, their granaries, their villages and towns, and fought only when it became politically necessary to do so — at Borodino — where they sustained a Pyrrhic defeat, and eventually burned Moscow itself.
The French were appalled at this barbarity: they could not imagine burning the fields of France, and certainly not Paris, if the situation were reversed. But by September 1812 Napoleon had to accept the wisdom of the Russian strategy. With the approach of winter it was clearly going to be impossible to sustain an army of half a million in the continuing hostile environment, and he was forced to retreat. As we know, during the retreat the falling temperatures and the depredations of the Russian forces particularly the Cossacks, literally decimated the French army. Less than a tenth of the invaders returned across the Niemen.
Napoleon himself left the army on 5th December, rushing back to Paris to raise a new army to resist the pursuit that must inevitably follow the almost total destruction of the Grande Armée in Russia.
Having raised a new force he determined to continue the fight as far from France as possible. What followed was Napoleon's greatest period as a military leader. He fought battle after successful battle against superior forces: Liitzen and Bautzen in May 1813, Dresden in August, Leipzig in October, but he was inevitably driven back, back, into France itself. Still the massive allied armies followed, with Napoleon winning battles in February 1814 at La Rothiére and Montmirail, but still having to retreat.
Then in late February, Prince Schwarzenberg commanding the Austrian army sent Prince Wenceslas of Liechtenstein to Napoleon's headquarters at Troyes to discuss an armistice. Napoleon agreed to discussions to be held at Lusigny, on the lakeside a few miles east of Troyes.
Russia appointed Schouvaloff as its representative, Prussia appointed Rauch, and Austria appointed General Ducca after its first nomination, de Languenau, fell ill. Napoleon appointed his aide-de-camp General Flahault as the French representative.
Flahault was only instructed verbally by Napoleon, but fortunately he kept a note of his instructions.
From the very beginning it is clear that Napoleon was not negotiating in good faith. He insisted that the talks should not prevent military movements, and proposed that the basis for an armistice should be that proposed earlier at Frankfort, which came to nothing. According to Flahault, Napoleon expected that this proposal would not be acceptable to the Allies. It would appear that he was either playing for time, or for a negotiating position: "I have yielded this, so you should yield that..." Napoleon's next condition was that the Allies should vacate all Belgium and the department of the Aube just to the east of Paris, and should assemble their forces in Franche Comté, Alsace and Lorraine in eastern France.
When negotiations opened on February 24th Napoleon proposed throughGeneral Flahault that the Allies should withdraw to a line, "Along the Meuse from its mouth to its source; passing thence between Vesoul and Langres; and ending in Switzerland near Franche Comté."
This proposal was quite ridiculously out of touch with reality. The Allies occupied Belgium and a quarter of France; Wellington had crossed the Pyrenees; and Napoleon had barely been able to repulse the Austrians at Champaubert and Montereau, only 50 miles from Paris itself.
Napoleon told Flahault to support his demands with vainglorious claims that the French Army was 300,000 strong and was increasing at a rate of 10,000 men each day, 2,000 of whom were cavalry; that he had three divisions of Old Guard, each of sixteen battalions and numbering 30,000 in all; and that the entire population of France was under arms.
Not surprisingly, the Allies were unimpressed by these claims and were in no mood to withdraw from lands hard won with the blood of their soldiers.
Nonetheless, the representatives were clearly keen to reach a settlement, and returned to their various commanders for further instructions.
On 25th February the Allies proposed a different cease fire line more in keeping with reality: "The old frontier between France and the Low Countries from the Sea to Maubeuge; thence the road through Avesnes to Laon, thence to Rheims; from Rheims to Châlons; then following the Marne as far as St. Dizier; from there to Colombey les deux Eglises; crossing the road between Troyes and Chaumont; thence by Châtillon-sur-Seine, Montbard, and Autun; rejoining the Saône at Châlon; following the Saône as far as Mâcon; and from there to Bourg; thence rejoining the Rhône at Lagnieu and following it as far as St. Genix where: the Rhône joins the ancient boundary with Savoie."
Napoleon refused to accept that either Belgium or Savoie — the French department just south of Geneva — should be ceded to the Allies. Discussion went on for 5 hours without agreement, and then the Allies' representatives again sought further instructions.
On 28th February the representatives returned with a new proposal. This yielded Dijon to Napoleon, but also reflected Wellington's approach from Spain.
The Allies proposed as the cease fire line, "The ancient boundaries of the Low Countries from the Sea to the outskirts of Maubeuge; thence a line crossing the Sambre near Mauberge and rejoining the Avesnes road, leaving Mauberge on the right and following the road to Paris as far as Laon; thence by the main road to Rheims; then on to Châlons-sur-Marne; thence up the Marne passing near Vitry, St. Dizier, and Joinville, as far as Chaumont; then by the road to Langres; from there to Dijon; from there along the canal to Mâcon; then by the road to Bourg-en-Bresse, from there to the Rhône by the Ain bridge at Lagnieu; and the up the river to St. Genix; then along the ancient boundary with Savoie along the Alps and the boundary of the Valais (now Vaud) as far as the Swiss frontier." In the south the line would be fixed where the armies of Italy and Wellington were at the moment the messenger would arrive.
Flahault, acting on Napoleon's instructions, objected to this proposal since it would yield Savoie, where French troops had repulsed the Allies.
But Napoleon had already revealed his true intentions. On the morning of 27th February he had written to Flahault, "Try and make the plenipotentiaries think that I left last night to establish my headquarters at Bar-sur-Aube. I am going to Arcis-sur-Aube to operate to the rear of Blucher, York and Wintzingerode, who are advancing towards La Ferté Gaucher"
On 27th February Napoleon indeed moved north to attack the rear of the Allied thrust towards Paris, but Blücher avoided the trap, joined up with Bülow advancing from the north, and four days later Paris surrendered.
How different history would have been if Napoleon had only been able to curb his opportunistic urges and take a realistic view of his predicament.
Clearly Emperor Francis of Austria had no intention of humiliating his son-in-law, and was negotiating in good faith. He no doubt saw advantages in having a settled family relationship with a still powerful France.
Napoleon, his armies still undefeated, would have remained Emperor of the French, rather than becoming King of Elba.
The King of Rome would have relinquished that title to become — the Dauphin?
There would have been no restoration of the Bourbons, and the today's pretender, Louis the umpteenth, would no doubt be living in Bayswater, surrounded by supporters with impressive titles, impoverished by British taxes.
Marshal Ney and General La Bédoyere would not have been executed.
And of course, there would have been no Waterloo.
Based on the Bowood Papers, Edited by the Earl of Kerry, and published by Constable & Co., 1925
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