Napoleon as Spin-Doctor and Mythmaker: “To Lie Like a Bulletin…”
Born on the island of Corsica on August 15, 1769, Napoleone Buonaparte became, in great part by his own efforts, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, conqueror of Europe, and probably history’s greatest soldier. The name of Napoleon Bonaparte survives today as that of an historic and rather mythic personage. He remains even today, along with Adolph Hitler, one of history’s most discussed and written about figures. Such survival is in no small part a product of his own endeavors. At least some of this effort is reflected in the Bulletins of the Grande Armée, which were written under Napoleon’s supervision if not by his own hand and dispatched from his military headquarters whenever on campaign.
Author David Markham has translated these Bulletins into English and published them in Imperial Glory: The Bulletins of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, 1805-1814, a complete collection of the bulletins as well as proclamations, decrees, letters, etc., that issued from Napoleon’s Grande Armée headquarters from 1805 through 1814. These numbered 37 Bulletins in 1805, 87 for the 1806-1807 campaign, 30 for the 1809 campaign, and finally 29 for the 1812 campaign in Russia. In addition to these, Markham included the official reports that replaced the formal bulletin during 1813 and 1814 and were sent first to the Empress and then on to Moniteur. There are no bulletins from the years before Napoleon’s 1804 coronation and the 1805 creation of the Grande Armée. Markham also noted that he did not find any bulletins from the French armies in Spain, either from the period of Napoleon’s personal involvement during 1808-1809 nor later, in either the published 1822 complete set of bulletins in the original French or in the 32-volume collection of Napoleon’s papers published, again in French, between 1858 and 1869. [Markham, 4]
Markham, I think correctly, places Napoleon’s bulletins within a frame that includes the works of other historic military and political figures who wrote about themselves and their military campaigns in some attempt at self-promotion, such as Julius Caesar’s Commentaries. However, as Markham points out, Caesar wrote in hopes of enhancing his prospects for achieving political leadership while Napoleon’s bulletins were all written after his ascension to the throne. Markham emphasizes, therefore, that Napoleon’s bulletins were intended to “maintain his position and lend support for the reform programmes he hoped to achieve.” However, I believe we can expand this to add that Napoleon sought through the bulletins to support his full domestic political agenda – not all of which would be characterized as reformist, especially after the establishment of the Empire – as well as the full range of Napoleon’s diplomatic, military, and international policies. Markham noted that the best work on the subject of Napoleon’s broader efforts to influence public opinion remains Napoleonic Propaganda by Robert Holtman (London, Greenwood Press, 1969).
Markham describes Napoleon as “a master at spin.” While they would not have recognized that modern phrase, even the soldiers of the Grande Armée understood the concept, as “to lie like a bulletin” was a proverbial phrase within the ranks of Napoleon’s soldiers. [Herold, 125]
Clearly the acknowledged purpose of the Bulletins is not to denigrate or criticize Napoleon so one must expect to see generally positive references. The modern reader of the bulletins will notice that they in fact had several audiences – the Grande Armée and especially its soldiers, the general public within the Empire as well as the general population across Europe, and finally the kings, princes, and governments of Europe. The bulletins were printed in the official newspaper “Moniteur Universel” (commonly called simply Moniteur). Copies were also provided to local officials and would be posted on the walls of churches, on town squares, and in town halls. Foreign agents, consuls, and diplomats would report their contents to their governments. Newspapers around the world would reprint all or part of bulletins either directly or from the pages of Moniteur or other newspapers—a standard journalistic practice of the period with or without crediting the source. Napoleon recognized that these were all audiences for his bulletins and realized that posterity was also his audience. This last aspect is supported by Napoleon’s comment during an 1816 conversation at St. Helena, reported in Mémorial de Sainte Hélène by Napoleon’s comrade in exile, Emmanuel Augustin Las Cases:
If Napoleone Buonaparte can be called a child of Corsica by reason of his birth there, Napoleon Bonaparte can be called a “child of the Revolution” for a life and career that would have been impossible without the French Revolution. Napoleon’s experiences during the Revolution taught him the importance of popular opinion.
Historians are in general agreement that without the Revolution and the opportunities it created, the young Corsican artillery officer would probably have at best retired a Colonel of artillery in the army of the Bourbons, perhaps having attained the position of instructor at the artillery school.
Although the violence of the Revolution opened up new opportunities for the young artillery officer, its heated political environment also created dangers. Napoleon was imprisoned in July 1794, in the wake of the moderate coup d’etat of 9 Thermidor An II (of the Revolutionary calendar) that overthrew Robespierre and the radicals, because of the young officer’s friendship with the younger brother of the feared Robespierre. Yet in the following October, after his release, Napoleon was willing to protect that same new moderate government against a mob of royalist sympathizers by the use of cannon and a “whiff of grapeshot” in the streets of Paris. Napoleon was not a great fan of the mob or street violence and as Emperor, in 1810, he would write in a letter, “The people is never in the right as soon as it begins to revolt.” [Herold, 72]
Napoleon’s own ideas on “the people” and their opinions evolved as a result of his experiences. In 1788, the young officer wrote to his younger brother Lucien about a proclamation the latter had published,
In 1801, First Consul Napoleon declared to the Conseil d’Etat (Council of State), “what do I care for the opinion of drawing room gossips? I don’t listen to them. For me, only one opinion counts – that of the rich peasants. All the rest is nothing.” Again, in 1804, a transcript of a meeting of the Council recorded Napoleon as saying, “We are here to guide public opinion, not to discuss it.” He would later write to Joseph Fouché, his Minister of Police, “Barére still believes that the masses must be stirred. On the contrary, they must be guided without their noticing it.” In conversation in 1815, the Emperor Napoleon said, “Public opinion is an invisible power, mysterious and irresistible. Nothing is more mobile, nothing vaguer, nothing stronger. No matter how capricious, it nonetheless is truthful, reasonable, and just, far more often than one would think.” Finally in 1817, exiled on St. Helena, Napoleon reportedly declared, “I always went along with the opinion of the masses and with events. I always paid little attention to individual opinions and a great deal to public opinion.” [Herold, 120]
Napoleon also was rarely in doubt about what he wanted that popular, public opinion to be. In a letter to Fouché, dated April 22, 1805, the new Emperor wrote:
In a subsequent letter in 1806 to Talleyrand, his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Napoleon instructed: “Monsieur Talleyrand, it is my intention that the political articles in the Moniteur be written at the ministry of foreign affairs. Then, when I have observed for a month how well they are done, I shall forbid the other papers to talk politics except by copying the articles in the Moniteur.” In 1809, Napoleon wrote to his minister of war, “All the news must be made known in the Moniteur, but at the same time care should be taken to leave out everything that is useless to know.” [Herold, 132]
Long before his coronation as Emperor of the French, Napoleon had already decided what Moniteur’s proper role was to be in his regime. A former schoolmate and private secretary, Louis Antoine Fauvelet Bourrienne, reported that one of his functions was to keep Napoleon abreast of the news. “While he was being shaved, I used to read the newspapers to him, always beginning with the Moniteur. ‘Skip it, skip it,’ he used to say when I read the French newspapers, ‘I know what’s in them. They say only what I tell them to.’” [Herold, 134]
A reader of the Bulletins will find that the greatest part of them refer to the various military activities and plans of the Grande Armée and its foes – current or potential. There are regular laudatory comments regarding soldiers, officers, and commanders for this or that action and some occasionally criticism as well. As the focus of this study is how Napoleon used the bulletins to project a popular particular image or impression of himself, I looked specifically for references to Napoleon personally, his words and his actions. These are by no means the most frequent items included in the bulletins, nor do the bulletins represent the sum total of contemporary news and commentary about Napoleon personally coming from his court or headquarters. Nevertheless, without claiming a definitive status, the manner and substance of the Bulletins’ references to Napoleon can be taken as indicative of how he wanted to be perceived by his contemporaries – and by posterity—as he was directly involved in their preparation and publication.
The Bulletins and other texts issuing forth from Napoleon’s headquarters were, as noted, dominated by news of the army and its operations and were increasingly so during 1812-1814, often reported in an anonymous third person. The most frequent references to Napoleon himself tended to relate to his movements. These often reported not only his whereabouts and comings and goings, but also whether he traveled by horseback and whether he was alone or with the army. Such reports did convey the impression of Napoleon as a vigorous man of action who did not spare himself and would share the life of his soldiers when the army was campaigning.
The second most frequent personal reference to Napoleon related to his interactions with his army, its units, and especially its soldiers. He is frequently described reviewing elements of his army, both French and allied units, ranging from regiments to entire army corps, increasingly so during 1809-1813. Such episodes were also frequently linked to his personal announcement or presentation of awards and decorations including the Legion of Honor, pensions, etc. It is interesting to note the great number of these reports associated with the recognition of non-French individuals and units, presumably as Napoleon sought to win and retain the support and loyalty of these elements of his Empire.
Several examples regarding the Emperor’s movements will suffice. In the Third Bulletin of the 1805 Campaign (Zusmershausen, 10 October 1805 – 18 Vendémiaire year 14) it was reported that,
“It rains heavily, but this does not slow down the forced marches of the Grande Armée. The Emperor sets the example on horseback day and night; he is continually in the midst of the troops and everywhere his presence is necessary. Yesterday he rode 14 leagues. He slept in a small village, without servants, and without any kind of baggage.” [Markham, 13]
In the Sixth Bulletin of the 1805 Campaign, (Elchingen, 18 October 1805 – 27 Vendémiaire year 14), it recounted the following incident:
The reference to the Austrian Emperor suggests that this may also have been a bit of personal diplomacy on Napoleon’s part as he transmitted a message via the device of the Bulletins.
Finally, in the Seventh Bulletin of the 1805 Campaign (Elchingen, 19 October 1805 – 26 Vendémiaire an 14) it was reported that: “The Emperor did not leave Elchingen today. He has endured fatigue and eight days of continuous rain and is need of a little rest. But rest is not compatible with the direction of this immense army. At all hours of the day and night officers arrive with reports, and the Emperor must give orders. He seems to be very satisfied with the activity and zeal of Marshall Berthier.” [Markham, 20-21]
As previously noted, another frequent theme was the Emperor’s reviews of elements of his army. The Third Bulletin of the 1805 Campaign (Zusmershausen, 10 October 1805 – 18 Vendémiaire year 14) offered a fairly typical account that also portrayed the Emperor rewarding individual courage while providing an anecdote that promoted the soldierly virtue of discipline:
The Twenty-second Bulletin of the 1806 Campaign (Berlin, 29 October 1806) reported another such review containing an element of unintended irony. While there was no stinting in the praise offered Marshal Davout and his soldiers in the aftermath of the French victory at Jena (14 October 1806), there was to be no official acknowledgement that while Napoleon personally led some 90,000 French troops to victory at Jena against about half that number of Prussians, Marshal Davout’s 27,000 men had defeated almost twice their number of Prussians near the town of Auerstadt. It was recorded in the annals of the Grande Armée as a single victory at Jena under the command of Napoleon and thus it was reported in the bulletin:
Also frequently reported were occasions when Napoleon recognized units and individuals and distributed awards in the immediate aftermath of a battle without a formal review. The Twenty-fifth Bulletin of the 1805 Campaign (Schönbrunn, 16 November 1805) recounted such a moment as Napoleon responded with an unusual form of special recognition, he commissioned a painting:
The ordered painting was done by Charles Meynier (1768-1832) and is in the collection of the National Museum of the Palaces of Versailles and the Trianon.
The Sixth Bulletin of the 1809 Campaign (Saint Pölten, 9 May 1809) described another such incident:
Similarly, as reported in the Fifteenth Bulletin of the 1812 Campaign (Slavkowo, 27 August 1912), “On the day after the battle of Valutino, His Majesty gave the 12th and 21st Regiments of Infantry of Line and the 7th Regiment of Light Infantry, a number of decorations of the Legion of Honour, to be bestowed on the captains, lieutenants, NCOs, and soldiers. The selections were made immediately, in a circle before the Emperor, and were confirmed with acclamations by the troops.” [Markham, 284]
Imperial recognition was not limited to individual decorations and awards. The Fourteenth Bulletin of the 1812 Campaign (Smolensk, 23 August 1812) reported how: “On the following day, at three in the morning, the Emperor distributed rewards on the field of battle, to all the regiments which had distinguished themselves; and as the 127th, which is a new regiment, had behaved itself well, His Majesty granted this regiment the right of carrying an Eagle, a privilege it had not before enjoyed, never having until this time been present in any battle.” [Markham, 281] The 127th Regiment of the Line had been raised in 1811 in Hamburg from the former Légion Hanovrienne and conscripts. Unfortunately, its Eagle was soon lost at the Battle of Krasnoi to the Don Cossacks and would be displayed as a trophy in St Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral. [Smith, 172]
The Fifty-eighth Bulletin (Prussian-Eylau, 9 February 1807) reported another episode that also involved the issue of a battalion Eagle during the Battle of Eylau. A French battalion was reported to have lost its Eagle, which had probably been taken by the enemy. The report concluded with the statement that the Emperor “will give that battalion another standard after it has taken one from the enemy.” [Markham, 143-144]
In a related category are several anecdotes from the Bulletins of Napoleon’s interactions often with mortally wounded officers and soldiers and ‘death-bed’ messages or statements of loyalty to the Emperor. One such incident was reported in the Fifteenth Bulletin of the 1805 Campaign (Branau, 31 October 1805 – 9 Brumaire year 14): “The 8th Regiment of Dragoons maintains its old reputation. A quartermaster of this regiment having had his wrist shot off said, in the presence of the Prince [Murat] as he was passing, ‘I regret the loss of my hand, because it can no long serve our brave Emperor.’ The Emperor, on learning of this event, said, ‘There I recognize the spirit of the Eighth. Let an advantageous place, according to his rank, be given to this quartermaster in the Palace of Versailles.’” [Markham, 29]
The Sixty-third Bulletin of the 1806-1807 Campaign (Osterode, 28 February 1807) described a sadder episode:
Marshals, generals, and even close acquaintances of Napoleon were not immune to the risks of battle and the Emperor was reportedly capable of special gestures in recognition. The Sixty-third Bulletin of the 1806-1807 Campaign (Osterode, 28 February 1807) reported the death of General Hautpoul, killed in action as commander of the second division of cuirassiers at the battle of Ostrolenka. The Emperor ordered that the cannon captured in that battle be used to make a statue to the late General. [Markham, 147] However, the project was not completed and today only the drawings survive.
Another moment of unintended irony should also be noted as just days later in the Sixty-fifth Bulletin (Osterode, 10 March 1807) it was pointed out in connection with these captured cannon that “the Emperor never lost any cannon in the armies that he has commanded, either in the first campaigns of Italy, and Egypt, in that of the Army of the Reserve, in that of Austria and Moravia, or in that of Prussia and Poland.” Such a boast would no longer be possible at the end of Napoleon’s career. [Markham, 149]
The Tenth Bulletin of the 1809 Campaign (Ebersdorf, 23 May 1809) described Napoleon’s visit to the bedside of the mortally wounded Marshal Lannes, the Duke of Montobello:
The Emperor’s reaction to another loss during the 1813 campaign was reported in Moniteur, on 30 May 1813 in a report from the army transmitted via the Empress:
As soon as the posts were placed, and the army had taken its bivouacs, the Emperor went to see the Duke of Friuli. He found him perfectly master of himself and showing the greatest composure. The Duke offered his hand to the Emperor, who pressed it to his lips. ‘My whole life,’ he said to him ‘has been consecrated to you service, nor do I regret its loss, but for the use it still might have been to you!’ ‘Duroc,’ said the Emperor, ‘there is another life! It is there that you will wait for me, and where we will meet again one day!’ ‘Yes, Sire! But that will be in 30 years, when you will have triumphed over your enemies and realized all the hopes of our country. I have lived an honest man. I have nothing to reproach myself with. I leave a daughter behind me; Your Majesty will fulfill the place of a father to her.’
The Emperor, grasping the right hand of the Grand Marshal, remained for a quarter of an hour, with his head reclined on his right hand, in deep silence. The Grand Marshal was the first who broke his silence ‘Ah, Sire,’ cried he, ‘go away this sight gives you pain!’ The Emperor, supporting himself on the Duke of Dalmatia and the Master of the Horse, left the Duke of Friuli without being able to say more than these words: ‘Farewell, then, my friend!’ His Majesty returned to his tent and would not receive any person all of that night.” [Markham, 344-345]
Born Geraud Christope Michel Duroc, the Duke of Friuli was a longtime personal friend who had served as an aide to General Bonaparte in Italy, again in Egypt, and later as Chief Aide to First Consul Bonaparte.
Also reported in the Bulletins were gestures by Napoleon on behalf of soldiers and their families. While still on the field at Austerlitz, Napoleon issued a proclamation granting a lifetime pension to the widows of his generals killed in that battle. He also decreed one-time payments to the widows of colonels and majors [24,000 francs], lieutenants and non-commissioned officers [800 francs], and of the soldiers [200 francs] also killed at the battle. In another decree, the Emperor ‘adopted’ the children of those deceased and provided for their education and rearing at Imperial expense in the palaces of Rambouillet (for the boys) and St. Germain (for the girls). Finally, all of these children were given the right to add the name Napoleon to their baptismal and family names. [Markham, 61-62]
A similar story appeared in the Seventeenth Bulletin of the 1806 Campaign (Potsdam, 25 October 1806):
A final theme found in the Bulletins reflected Napoleon’s changing attitudes, interests, and needs in the diplomatic arena. The Tenth Bulletin of the 1805 campaign (Augsburg, 22 October 1805 – 30 Vendemiaire year 14) reported that the Emperor had set aside 20,000 captured Austrian rifles to be given to Bavaria for its army and its National Guard. The subject of assistance to Bavaria arose again several weeks later. In the Twenty-third Bulletin (Palace of Schönbrunn, 14 November 1805 – 23 Brumaire year 14) it was reported that the Emperor presented the Elector of Bavaria with 15,000 captured Austrian muskets from the Vienna arsenal and that all cannon previously taken from Bavaria by the Austrians would be returned to the Bavarians. [Markham, 39]
The Thirtieth Bulletin of the 1805 Campaign (Austerlitz, 3 December 1805 – 12 Frimaire year 14) recounted an actual moment of diplomatic dialogue between Napoleon and a Russian officer/envoy. The intended audience presumably included the Grande Armée, the French public, and the ‘Crowned Heads of Europe.”
The Bulletin commented on this reported conversation: “If France can arrive at peace only by the conditions the aide-de-camp Dolgorucki proposed to the Emperor and which Mr Novosiltzof was ordered to bring, Russia should not obtain them were her army encamped upon the heights of Montmarte.” [Markham, 55] The Bulletin’s observation foreshadowed exactly what would happen in 1814 – the Russian army was “encamped upon the heights of Montmarte” and Napoleon was forced to abdicate and then sent into exile
A somewhat different diplomatic message was contained in the Thirty-first Bulletin (Austerlitz, 5 December 1805 – 14 Frimaire year 14) description of an encounter between the Emperor and another Russian officer: “We must not conceal an incident that does honour to the enemy. The commander of the artillery of the Russian Imperial Guard had just lost his cannon. He met the Emperor: ‘Sire,’ said he, ‘have me shot, I have just lost my cannon.’ ‘Young man,’ replied the Emperor to him, ‘I appreciate your tears, but one may be beaten by my army and still be entitled to glory.’ [Markham, 57-58] This was again a story that had multiple audiences as it allowed Napoleon to praise his own soldiers and to leave open a small window to the Russians by acknowledging their valor.
The Second Bulletin of the 1806 Campaign (Auma, 12 October 1806) allowed Napoleon to send a slightly different set of messages regarding another political and military foe, Prince Louis of Prussia.
The Sixteenth Bulletin (Wittemberg, 23 October 1806) offered a variation on diplomacy as the Emperor rewarded his soldiers at the cost of his English foe. Napoleon ordered that a large store of English cloth seized in Leipzig be used to make “a complete set of clothes for each officer and a greatcoat and a morning coat to each soldier.” [Markham, 94]
Several Bulletins reported punitive steps taken in 1806 by Napoleon as part of his diplomatic campaign with regard to various German principalities affected by his creation of the German Confederation of the Rhine. The Twenty-seventh Bulletin of the Campaign (Berlin, 6 November 1806) reported “The Emperor has ordered the fortresses of Hanau and Mauburg to be destroyed, all the magazines and arsenals to be removed to Mentz, all the troops disarmed, and the sovereign arms of Hesse-Cassel everywhere to be taken down.” [Markham, 109] The Thirty-second Bulletin (Berlin, 16 November 1806) reported that the King of Holland [Louis Bonaparte] had “caused the corps of Marshal Mortier” to move into Hanover where the Prussian Eagles and the Electoral arms were removed from display. [Markham, 117] The Emperor offered incentives as well as punishment. In the Forty-second Bulletin (Posen, 15 December 1806) it was reported that Napoleon had ordered the restitution of contributions levied upon and already collected in Saxe-Gotha and Saxe-Meiningen because “those princes…have not been at war with France,…have not furnished contingents to Prussia.” [Markham, 124]
The Emperor had a different audience in mind in an incident reported in the Thirty-seventh Bulletin (Posen, 2 December 1806) describing the fall of Fort Czentoskoaw with its 660-man garrison and 30 cannon. Reportedly found in the fort was a “treasure” consisting of valuables dedicated by the Poles to the Holy Virgin, the patron of Poland. The Emperor ordered this sequestered for return to the Poles.
Napoleon had yet a different diplomatic ploy in mind with two other reports in his Bulletins aimed at the Turks as well as the Russians. The Fiftieth Bulletin (Warsaw, 13 January 1807) stated, “Letters received from Bucharest give some details concerning the preparations for war making by Bayracter and the Pacha of Widdin. On 20 December, the advanced guard of the Turkish army, consisting of 15,000 men, was on the frontiers of Wallachia and Moldavia….In passing Bucharest, the Turkish officers appeared to be very much animated; they said to a French officer who was in that town, ‘the French shall see what we are capable of; we will form the right hand of the army of Poland; we shall show ourselves worthy to be praised by the Emperor Napoleon.’” [Markham, 134-135]
As indicated by this sampling from the Bulletins, Napoleon used them in many ways. He sought to strengthen his bonds with his French soldiers and to build ties with his soldiers from allied countries by emphasizing their shared experiences as soldiers. The reports of his charitable gestures likewise assured soldiers that their families would be taken care of whatever might befall them on the battlefield. He supported his diplomatic dialogue with the selected anecdotes and homilies he inserted into the Bulletins, emphasizing his desire for peace or his determination to defend his realm and his allies, whichever he deemed appropriate.
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Herold, J. Christopher. The Mind of Napoleon, A Selection from His Written and Spoken Words. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.
Markham, J. David. Imperial Glory: The Bulletins of Napoleon's
Grand Armée, 1805-1814. London: Greenhill, 2003.
Smith, Digby. Napoleon’s Regiments: Battle Histories of the Regiments of the French Army, 1792-1815. London: Greenhill, 2000.
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