THE WAR OF THE TWO EMPERORS: The Duel Between Napoleon and Alexander Russia 1812; by Curtis Cate; Random House (1985); ISBN: 0-394-53670-3

How could a military campaign, planned down to the smallest detail by the greatest soldier of his, and perhaps of any, age, go as completely wrong as did Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812? This is a fascinating question; one that has been asked repeatedly, almost from the day that the campaign ended. For the answer, Curtis Cate examines the minds and the characters of both of the men whose decisions directly affected the events of the 1812 campaign. In “The War of the Two Emperors,” the author shows that Napoleon did not underestimate the enormity of his undertaking, or delude himself as to the difficulties that he and his troops would confront when they invaded Holy Russia. Napoleon was, from the very beginning, acutely aware that the elaborate plans that he had prepared for supplying his half-million man host could not really hold up if the campaign lasted more than a few weeks. But, as Cate demonstrates, Bonaparte’s were not the only plans that mattered in June of 1812 in Russia.

Tsar Alexander I, 1812
“The War of the Two Emperors” underscores a fact that is often ignored or pushed aside in studies of the 1812 campaign in Russia: that there were two emperors, and not just one, who influenced the final outcome of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Certainly, it was the French Emperor’s role that seemed the more active and dynamic during the first months of the war; yet Tsar Alexander was, during the period of Napoleon’s greatest advances, able to maintain control of his armies, of his ministers, and of his short-sighted, arrogant, and jingoistic nobles. In a real sense, Tsar Alexander demonstrated the better appreciation of the real strategic situation than did the military genius, Napoleon. Alexander understood, and more importantly believed, that — although his armies might never win or even fight a single decisive battle against the force led by the French Emperor — the ordinary passage of time and the unimaginable vastness of Russia would, in combination, inevitably bring about Napoleon’s undoing.

In the first days of his invasion, defeat seemed inconceivable to the French Emperor or to the enormous army that he led. Napoleon, not unreasonably, was optimistic about the prospects of his impending offensive. The Emperor remained in good spirits even when confronted by the jumble that had immediately occurred as soon as the 240,000 soldiers, 100,000 horses, and 20,000 vehicles of the main body of the Grand Armée had all begun to converge on the three pontoon bridges that formed his army’s main crossings on the River Nieman. In these, the first days of the campaign, the French soldiers were also in good spirits. Each man, as part of an emergency kit, carried three extra pairs of shoes, a spare uniform, and twenty pounds of emergency rations to help support him as he and his comrades marched ever deeper into Russia. And events did move ahead. Despite the mass confusion, for example, the entire French army passed over the Nieman bridges during the four days from the 23rd through the 26th of June, 1812.

Arrayed against Napoleon were not only the armies of a resolute and implacable Tsar, but also the primitive vastness of Holy Russia, and the unwieldy size of the Emperor’s own army. This massive host seemed to thwart his plans at every turn. Napoleon had never commanded a force of this enormous size before, and he would never do so again. The great armies that he had led to victory after victory in central Europe and Spain were seldom larger than 200,000 men. In Russia he commanded an army of well over half a million troops. The reality was that, in Russia, the distances were too vast, the roads were too terrible and too few, and his huge army was too large even for the Emperor to control. The complex French Quartermaster arrangements broke down almost immediately. And the frustrating news that dispatches and orders had been lost or delayed became commonplace. In Russia, seemingly nothing worked as it should. The supreme irony was that, had Napoleon invaded with a smaller force, the Russian Tsar, moved both by patriotism and martial pride, might well have presented Napoleon with the early decisive battle that he so desperately sought. The very size of his unmanageable mass of troops drove the Russians to withdraw ever eastward away from the swarm of advancing French.

Napoleon in Moscow Church, 1812
The Russians retreated steadily and the campaign wore on, and on. So it was that, as the weeks passed, French optimism slowly faded, and an army that Napoleon had hoped to march victoriously out of Russia before August was now forced to fight a desperate battle on the road to Moscow on 7 September 1812. The author suggests that as his offensive floundered, the coldly-logical Napoleon who had so carefully planned the invasion, gradually gave way to a wholly different man, one who increasingly deluded himself about his, and his army’s situation. Most importantly, however, the French Emperor deluded himself about the strength of purpose and the ultimate intentions of Tsar Alexander I. And as Napoleon’s optimism waned, that of Alexander waxed. Secretly, emissaries from the beleaguered Tsar sought to separate the reluctant French allies, Prussia and Austria, from Napoleon’s orbit. Tsar Alexander knew only too well, as did the French Emperor, that this year’s enemy could well be next year’s ally. When the French finally entered Moscow in late September, Napoleon’s campaign was already a failure. Bonaparte, in spite the French victory at Borodino two weeks earlier, was beginning to suspect as much; Tsar Alexander, encouraged by reports from Marshal Kutusov, however, had become certain of it. As winter rapidly approached, in the young Tsar’s mind, the only question left to be decided was the magnitude of the French disaster.

Curtis Cate tells a compelling story, and he does so with the clear, no-nonsense language of a journalist reporting a news event. Thus, despite the fact that the author is a former reporter, and not a formally-trained historian, his work is clearly the product of careful research, and shows a heavy reliance on primary sources, particularly on the French side. This may be because Mr. Cate was born in France to American parents. There are also sixteen pages of illustrations, so virtually all of the major historical players are identified. The one failing of the book, from my standpoint, is the relative paucity of maps: there are only three. Given the level of detail present throughout the rest of the book, this is a curious, but not fatal, lapse.

Napoleon on Retreat from Moscow, 1812
Alexander’s resolute determination during the early days of the French invasion and the French Emperor’s gradual descent into depression and lethargy as the campaign ground on are both carefully documented in “The War of the Two Emperors.” That Napoleon’s invasion failed is common knowledge; that the retreat from Moscow, although a tragedy for the French, need not have been the disaster it turned into — that is another story. The French Emperor’s melancholy listlessness in Moscow, and then the almost instantaneous reemergence of the energetic, decisive Napoleon may not, according to Cate, have been quite the beneficial transformation that is so often portrayed. The Emperor’s sudden frantic surge of activity — with its wild flurry of confusing and sometimes contradictory orders — may well have indirectly caused the purposeless destruction of warehouses full of irreplaceable supplies that could have fed the army on its march out of Russia. Nor were men the only victims of this sudden frantic, uncoordinated activity. At least 20,000 pounds of oats were mistakenly burned, instead of being transported with the army to feed the cavalry mounts. Even as the army prepared to exit Moscow, the Emperor still did not seem fixed as to his final course of action. Many years after the campaign, the opinions of a number of Napoleon’s staff continued to differ as to whether the Emperor really intended to permanently abandon the city when the army began its winter march.

On the whole, I would have to recommend “The War of the Two Emperors.” It is not exactly a military history in the traditional mold, although I found nothing to criticize in the author’s description of the campaign. Where this book seems to really reach the reader, I think, is with the myriad odd little facts that often seem to go missing in the other, more conventional historical chronicles of Napoleon’s failed campaign. More importantly, Cate really does attempt to credit Tsar Alexander for the Russian victory, at least as much as most other writers credit Napoleon for the defeat. In addition, I can say that, although I have read a number of very thorough, well-researched accounts of the 1812 campaign, I was able to glean a surprising amount of secondary detail from Cate’s book, and that certainly made the read worth it to me.


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