Tag Archives: Alice Shepperson

The King of Naples

As the 200th anniversary of the campaign comes to a close, we have one last guest post by Alice Shepperson.  Alice has summed up the career of Marshal Murat, paying particular attention to the attributes that made him a good (or not so good) choice to take over command of the destroyed Grande Armée when Napoleon left it to return to France in December of 1812.

On leaving the Grande Armée in December 1812, Napoleon appointed his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat as commander-in-chief. The King of Naples would desert just six weeks later, leaving Prince Eugène to attempt to rescue the army’s desperate situation. How was Napoleon so mistaken?

Joachim Murat

Joachim Murat

Joachim Murat was the son of a country innkeeper. His family intended him for the church and sent him to study theology in Toulouse. Given his flamboyant, energetic nature, extreme vanity and powerful, athletic build, Joachim’s relations should not have been surprised when at the age of twenty he ran off with a passing cavalry regiment. Joachim enlisted as a private, but with the coming of the Revolution, officer rank came within the grasp of commoners – especially well educated, loudly republican commoners like Murat.

Lieutenant Murat came to Napoleon’s attention on 13 of Vendemiaire 1795. He happened to be in temporary command of the 21st Chasseurs when Bonaparte ordered them to seize the 40 guns of the National Guard on the Place de Sablons. Thus it was Murat who provided Napoleon with the “whiff of grapeshot”, that saved the Convention and made him a national hero. Murat was rewarded with an appointment as Napoleon’s aide-de-camp.

Murat at Aboukir

Murat at Aboukir

In Italy, Egypt and soon throughout Europe, Murat proved himself a fearless and effective cavalry commander, renowned for his reckless bravery and desire to lead every charge in person. His tactics involved quick movement and rapid strikes, exploiting any mistakes by the enemy. At the battle of Aboukir, his attack was so swift that he overtook the Turkish commander, who in resisting capture, shot Murat through the jaw. Refusing to go to hospital, he bandaged up his face and carried on with the battle.

Caroline Murat and Family

Caroline Murat and Family

Murat’s relationship with Napoleon was complex. He was instrumental in Napoleon’s rise to power, securing the cavalry’s support for his coup of Brumaire 1799. Soon after, Murat secured Napoleon’s consent to marry his favourite sister, Caroline. Now part of the family, Murat took an active part in the squabbling, intrigues and backstabbing habitual to the Bonapartes, mostly aimed at ensuring each sibling got their fair share of the palaces, titles and territories dispensed by Napoleon. Josephine complained to Madame de Remusat that the Murats “…kept up their own influence by exciting the Consul to passing fancies and promoting his secret intrigues.” Though, Napoleon often found his family excessively grasping, Murat remained indispensible as both a commander and an ally.

However, when Napoleon gave Murat the crown of Naples in 1808, their relationship began to sour. Murat was a proud man and felt that like any monarch he should have free rein in his own kingdom, while Napoleon treated him as a mere French military governor, constantly questioning his domestic policy, dictating the movements of French troops in Naples and generally interfering. This caused constant chaffing between the two men.

Murat's Best Uniform

Murat’s Best Uniform

Being crowned also inflated the dandy in Murat. His personally designed battle costume for the Russian campaign consisted of long yellow leather boots, crimson and gold fur-lined breeches, blue tunic with gold lace, red velvet pelisse and a tricorn hat decorated with ostrich feathers and diamonds. This was set off by a diamond encrusted sabre and gold spurs. A less conspicuously brave man would have been ridiculed.

By 1812, Murat and Napoleon appeared to have buried their differences and the “First Horseman of Europe” once again served with distinction, taking a leading role at Borodino and almost every other engagement. As commander of the cavalry, his responsibilities were especially onerous. On the advance, the cavalry were employed in chasing the Russian rearguard, and throughout the campaign Cossack raids made constant patrols necessary, which Napoleon insisted should be large enough to prevent detachments being isolated and killed. In addition, the cavalry were expected to forage for the rest of the army and do reconnaissance. There was simply no time to feed and rest tired mounts. By the crossing of the Beresina there were only 1,800 mounted cavalrymen left.

On the 5th of December, Napoleon left the Grande Armée in the care of Murat. For several reasons, he was the natural choice: he was a king and therefore highest ranking; he was family, implying loyalty to the Empire; he was an experienced commander-in-chief who had held independent commands since 1801.

For several other reasons, Murat was a terrible choice:

Murat’s elevation to kingship, rather than binding him more tightly to the Emperor, had in fact made him less reliable. Obsessed with maintaining his new dignity, his chief concerns were now not with the army, but in Naples with Caroline, their children and his crown. When Devout reminded him that he owed his kingdom to Napoleon and to French blood, he replied, “I am as much King of Naples as Francis is Emperor of Austria and I may do as I please.”

Napoleon and Murat in Russia

Napoleon and Murat in Russia

Murat was also intrinsically ill-suited to the enormous task. As Berthier wrote, “The King of Naples is the first of men for executing the orders given by a commander-in-chief on the battlefield. The King of Naples is in every way the most incapable of acting as commander-in-chief himself.” Almost as soon as he took command, Murat asked to hand it over to Eugène, who he said was more experienced in administration. This was not strictly true, as Murat had been organising whole armies for longer, and administering his own kingdom since 1808. Napoleon put it well when he later said to Caroline, “He is a brave man on the battlefield, but feebler than a woman or a monk when the enemy is not in sight. He has no moral courage.” Murat was perfectly capable of detailed administration when the goal was victory. Without the prospect of new glories to spur him on however, he lost motivation, and lacked the inner resources to find it again.

MuratThe Russian campaign had also affected Murat deeply. He was physically and mentally exhausted, and though a veteran of many battles, was at least sick at heart, if not actually shaken. Berthier wrote in a dispatch to the Emperor in December, “The King of Naples is very unsettled in his ideas”, and recommended again that he be replaced.

By January 15th, Murat was pleading that he must leave the army on the grounds of ill-health, though when he did leave on the 17th, he managed to travel straight to Naples without stopping. “Not bad for a sick man!” was Eugène’s assessment.

Marshal Murat

Marshal Murat

Most importantly though, Murat had lost faith in Napoleon. After Leipzig, he abandoned the French cause to save his kingdom, only to take it up again during the Hundred Days when the allied powers looked to dethrone him. Following Waterloo he fled to Corsica, from where he tried to organise an insurrection to regain Naples. Neapolitan forces eventually captured him and he was executed by firing squad. Vane and defiant to the last, he faced his death standing and without a blindfold, shouting, “Soldiers! Do your duty! Straight to the heart but spare the face. Fire!”


Was it the Horseshoes?

When studying the destruction of the Grande Armée in Russia, it is sometimes tempting to look for a single error, a surprisingly minor oversight that if corrected would have made an enormous change in the outcome of the event – What if…

Fellow blogger Alice Shepperson (Noon Observation) tackles the question: Was it really the lack of winter horseshoes that led to the destruction of the Grande Armée on the retreat from Russia?  Here’s Alice:

Winter Horseshoes
Note the Four Raised Points

In a recent BBC documentary, Bullets, Boots and Bandages, historian Saul David argued that a major reason for the disastrous nature of the retreat from Moscow was Napoleon’s failure to bring winter horseshoes or frost nails – spikes designed to give horses grip on ice. “This tiny logistical oversight,” argues David, “was to cost him dear.” He backs this up with statements from professional farriers about the effects this would have had on the horses: their shoes gave them no traction on up-hills and no brakes on down-hills. This was certainly a problem. Adolphe Thiers describes the plight

Frost Nails

of the French artillery horses after they left Moscow: “Flogged until they were covered with blood, and their knees torn with frequent falling, they were found incapable of overcoming ordinary obstacles, through loss of strength and want of means to prevent their slipping on the ice.” But was this really the cause of the army’s destruction?

French Horse-Drawn Artillery

It certainly destroyed some of it. Robert Wilson, who had been seconded to the Imperial Russian Army wrote on the November 5th that “some Cossacks … seeing a gun and several tumbrils at the bottom of a ravine, with the horses lying on the ground, dismounted, and taking up the feet of several, hallooed, ran, … danced, and made fantastic gestures like crazy men … they pointed to the horses’ shoes and said— ” God has made Napoleon forget that there was a winter in our country…” It was soon ascertained that all horses of the enemy’s army were in the same improperly-shod state, except those of the Polish corps, and the Emperor’s own.”

But in order to determine the importance of this, we should consider what these horses were actually pulling…

Artillery certainly required horsepower, and guns and ammunition were some of the first things that the army started discarding. Was artillery needed in the retreat? Yes, for defence against the enemy, but there is no particular incident in which the French were crippled by lack of guns or ammo. Cannon could certainly not prevent soldiers dying of hunger or cold, which were the major killers.

Wounded men were another burden, and to his credit, Napoleon tried to cram as many as possible onto the army’s wagons, often much to the annoyance of their drivers. There were also non-military personnel to be carried, such as the artists and musicians Napoleon brought with him, and some of the numerous women, and even children, who followed the army. The loss of wagons would have had a terrible effect on the prospects of the wounded and non-combatants, but these people (though it seems heartless) were not essential to the continued cohesion or existence of the Grand Armée.

Many of the 40,000 or so carts that left Moscow however, were filled with loot and officers’ baggage. Colonel Count Roguet reported that, “for nearly forty miles I had to pick my way through the army’s procession of horse-drawn vehicles. Every one was laden with useless baggage.” The plunder included paintings, chandeliers and entire libraries. All were gradually jettisoned, making a lot of pursuing Cossacks extremely rich, but not destroying the French.

Essentially, having adequate horse-drawn transport only makes a difference to the health and wellbeing of soldiers if there are useful stores to move. By the time the roads became icy in late October, an overabundance of supplies was not really a problem for the French. Captain Roeder said after the battle of Maloyaroslavets, “the whole army was now living almost entirely on horse flesh.” Others speak of foraging cabbage stalks or hempseed from abandoned farms or making soup using tallow (used to lubricate rifles). There were even instances of cannibalism. If there had been food in the carts, the chances are it would have been taken by force by the starving men, as happened when the first units reached the warehouses in Smolensk.

Horsepower did not in fact give out totally. When the Berezina was reached on the 26th November, General Jean Baptiste Eblé still had the crucial forges, charcoal and sapper tools needed to build two trestle bridges, and there was enough artillery to cover the rearguard action and protect the crossing. Even this late in the retreat there were horses and wagons enough to transport these essentials.

So if the demise of horse-powered transport was not to blame for the army’s privations, what was?

The Grande Armée was so ill-prepared for a winter retreat, that horseshoes were just a tiny drop in the ocean of its deficiencies. As well as lacking food and fodder, they lacked winter clothing. Boris Uxkull, a Russian cavalry officer, remarked in his journal on November 12th that among the French prisoners “you see the most peculiar clothes – cuirassiers with feet wrapped up in sheets and rags, cannoneers in women’s clothes and muffs”.  Some even blame the disaster on the tin buttons that Napoleon “foolishly” used, which may have turned to dust at around -30°C. Nor did the army have tents, Napoleon believing that, “tents are unfavourable to health. The soldier is best when he bivouacs… A few planks and a morsel of straw shelter him from the wind.” This was all very well in wooded, densely inhabited Europe where other shelter was available, but on the exposed Russian plains, soldiers needed more than a bit of straw to keep warm.

Scott’s Ponies

It’s important to remember that neither men nor horses do well in temperatures below -20°C, whether they’re wearing the right shoes or not. Look what happened to Captain Scott’s ponies exactly 100 years later, though they had been carefully selected from Siberian stock and supplied with the latest snowshoes and goggles. When constant Cossack attacks are added to the harsh conditions, it seems likely that these external factors had a far greater destructive effect than the want of winter horseshoes.

Pony Snowshoes

But isn’t the basic problem that Napoleon never intended to conduct a prolonged campaign through the Russian winter? His mistake, therefore, was to march his army all the way to Moscow, not packing the wrong food, uniforms, buttons or horseshoes.

The nail (tee-hee) in the coffin of the horseshoe theory is that the Russians often didn’t have the right ones either. Uxkull complains on October 24th that “our horses, which have no shoes, slip on the frozen ground and fall down, never to get up again. The artillery especially is suffering a lot.” The difference was that they weren’t a thousand miles into hostile enemy territory beyond the reach of supplies.

Alice Shepperson, the writer of today’s blog post, is also the writer of her own blog, Noon Observation, a humorous and informative look at various history topics.  I highly recommend a visit and signing up to follow her blog.