Tag Archives: Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army

Presentation on Napoleon’s 1812 Invasion of Russia

On October 23, I’ll be giving a presentation as part of the Life Long Learning series in East Greenville, Pennsylvania.  My topic will be Napoleon’s 1812 Invasion of Russia which is, of course, the backdrop for my book, Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army.
I won’t be speaking about my book, however.  Rather I’ll be talking about the campaign and working in some of the eyewitness accounts I have been blogging about.
If anyone is local to the East Greenville area (southeastern Pennsylvania, USA) and is willing to pay $15 to register for the series, you are invited to come out to my 9:30 am presentation on Tuesday, October 23, 2012.
Additional information and registration information for LLL is available by following this link.  Attendees must register in advance.

The Portrait of the King of Rome Arrives

On the eve of battle, a letter from Napoleon’s wife, Marie Louise and a portrait of their son arrived from France.  The portrait had been recently painted by François Gérard and showed Napoleon II, also known as the King of Rome, in his cradle, playing cup-and-ball with the globe and an imperial scepter.  Napoleon was delighted to see the portrait and set it on a chair in front of his tent so it could be publicly displayed.

Napoleon showing the portrait
of the King of Rome

Philippe-Paul de Ségur recorded the scene, “It chanced that very day the Emperor received from Paris a portrait of the King of Rome, the child whom the Empire had welcomed with as much joy as had the Emperor himself.  Every day since the birth of his son Napoleon had been seen at his side in the palace, expressing the most tender of sentiments: and when on such far-removed fields, in the midst of such threatening preparations, he looked on the image of that gentle face again, his soldier’s heart was strangely softened.  He set up the picture outside his tent and called his officers, even the soldiers of the Old Guard, wishing to share his feelings with those seasoned troopers, to show his private family to his military family, and display this symbol of hope in the presence of grave danger.”

Another view of the same scene
by Hippolyte Bellange
Note that the portrait in this image
differs from the one described by Ségur

This scene was also described in War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  The prefect of the Emperor’s palace, Beausset, arrived at the camp at Borodino.  “‘Ha, what have we here?’ asked Napoleon, observing that all the suite kept glancing at something concealed under a cloth.

With courtly adroitness de Beausset half turned and without turning his back to the Emperor retired two steps, twitching off the cloth at the same time, and said:

‘A present to Your Majesty from the Empress.’

It was a portrait, painted in bright colors by Gerard, of the son borne to Napoleon by the daughter of the Emperor of Austria, the boy whom for some reason everyone called ‘The King of Rome.’

A very pretty curly-headed boy with a look of the Christ in the Sistine Madonna was depicted playing at stick and ball. The ball represented the terrestrial globe and the stick in his other hand a scepter.

Though it was not clear what the artist meant to express by depicting the so-called King of Rome spiking the earth with a stick, the allegory apparently seemed to Napoleon, as it had done to all who had seen it in Paris, quite clear and very pleasing.

‘The King of Rome!’ he said, pointing to the portrait with a graceful gesture. ‘Admirable!’

Marie Louise and Napoleon II

With the natural capacity of an Italian for changing the expression of his face at will, he drew nearer to the portrait and assumed a look of pensive tenderness. He felt that what he now said and did would be historical, and it seemed to him that it would now be best for him- whose grandeur enabled his son to play stick and ball with the terrestrial globe- to show, in contrast to that grandeur, the simplest paternal tenderness. His eyes grew dim, he moved forward, glanced round at a chair (which seemed to place itself under him), and sat down on it before the portrait. At a single gesture from him everyone went out on tiptoe, leaving the great man to himself and his emotion.

Having sat still for a while he touched- himself not knowing why- the thick spot of paint representing the highest light in the portrait, rose, and recalled de Beausset and the officer on duty. He ordered the portrait to be carried outside his tent, that the Old Guard, stationed round it, might not be deprived of the pleasure of seeing the King of Rome, the son and heir of their adored monarch.

And while he was doing M. de Beausset the honor of breakfasting with him, they heard, as Napoleon had anticipated, the rapturous cries of the officers and men of the Old Guard who had run up to see the portrait.

‘Vive l’Empereur! Vive le roi de Rome! Vive l’Empereur!’ came those ecstatic cries.”

Tomb of Napoleon II
Les Invalides

Blogger’s Note:  I also used this episode in my book Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army.  In the story, 14-year-old Henri Carle, though not a soldier,  is accompanying the Grande Armée on the invasion.  His older brother is with the 18th Regiment of the Line in Ney’s III Corps.  On the night before battle, Henri volunteers to fill some canteens.  Earlier in the campaign, at Smolensk, Henri had run an errand for Marshal Ney…

After I had filled the canteens and started back, I came across a group of officers including Marshal Ney who called me over.

“Napoleon is going to issue a proclamation to be read to the troops, run over to headquarters and bring it back for me,” Ney said as he pointed to a spot behind the lines.

Even though I was weighed down by the full canteens, I ran as fast as I could.  This was important.  I was being sent to pick up a message from Napoleon.  I found a large tent surrounded by officers and soldiers.  The sight of so many men and the thought of being so near to Napoleon made me pause.  I decided if you act like you know what you are doing, people will listen to you.

I adjusted the canteens and walked with purpose toward the tent.  I looked for a clerk of some kind as I pushed my way through the milling crowd.  Next to the tent, under the light of two lanterns, sat an officer writing at a field desk.

“I’m here to pick up the proclamation for Ney’s corps,” I announced in a voice a little too loud.

To my left, I heard someone say, “This one looks a little thirsty,” and the soldiers around him laughed at the sight of all my canteens.  I turned to look at them and saw a short man in a grey coat with dark, straight hair that fell over his forehead.  It was Napoleon.  I’d seen paintings of him, but here he was in person.  He was standing next to a chair that held a large, framed painting of a young child.  Soldiers of the Old Guard, Napoleon’s finest troops, were gathered around admiring the painting.

“Come here,” the Emperor said holding out a hand to me, “I want you to see this.  It is my son, The King of Rome.”

The soldiers made room for me, and I walked over to stand in front of the painting.  “It just arrived today straight from Paris.”

He put one hand on my shoulder and held out his other hand to the painting.  “What do you think?”

I didn’t know Napoleon even had a son.  “I’m sure it looks just like him,” I said.

“Ah, a diplomat to be sure,” Napoleon laughed.  “Someday he’ll be in the army, just like you, but for now, he is too young to witness his first battle.”  Turning to an aide, he said, “Take it into my tent where he won’t see.”

He then dropped his hand from my shoulder and hurried into the tent.  The officer behind the desk called out, “I have the proclamation for the Third Corps.”

I went to pick it up, and the officer said, “He’s feeling a little under the weather and sometimes needs to excuse himself to use the latrine,” as way of explaining the sudden end to my meeting with the Emperor.

Blogger’s Note II:  The painting did not survive the retreat.  The painter had made copies, however, although I could not find one for this post.


Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p. 61

http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/war_and_peace/216/, book ten, chapter XXVI

Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army, Scott Armstrong, p. 82

Truce in the Ravine

Another informal truce is described by Lieutenant Hubert Lyautey, serving with the Artillery of the Guard:  “We were separated from the Russians by a ravine with a stream of dark muddy water.  The need to water the horses was common to both sides, and each wend down into the ravine.  The horses were unharnessed from half our guns, which were left in battery formation, and I accompanied these horses and some of the gunners, leaving enough men up top to work the guns if need arose.  The Russians drank on one side and we on the other.  We conversed by means of gestures, without understanding each other very well.  We offered drinks and tobacco, and in these we were the richer and more generous side.  Soon afterwards these good friends fired cannon-shots.  I found one officer who spoke French, and we exchanged a few words.”

Blogger’s Note:  I worked this scene into my book, Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army.  — Scott Armstrong

Source: 1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James

Russian Snows at Napoleon’s tomb

I’m back now from a trip to France with my daughter and step-son.  It was a school trip so it was a whirlwind experience without time to see anything in-depth.  Due to a fortunately timed, but unplanned, bathroom break during a bus tour of Paris on the first day, I was able to have myself photographed with a copy of Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army at Napoleon’s tomb.

Scott Armstrong with copy of Russian Snows:Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army at Napoleon’s tomb.
June 26, 2012.

Thank you to my charming and patient daughter, Helen,  for making the hurried tour of the tomb with me and taking the picture before we had to be back on the tour bus.

The book I am holding is the copy I gave to my son, Nathaniel, who did not accompany us on the trip.  He’ll be able to say he has a copy of a book that was in the presence of the Emperor.

Now that I’m back, I’ll begin posting more 200th anniversary accounts of the invasion of Russia.

The 200th Anniversary of the Invasion of Russia Begins

200 years ago today, Napoleon’s Grande Armée crossed the Nieman river on pontoon bridges to launch the invasion.  Each man carried three days of

Napoleon Crossing the Nieman
June 1812

provisions and the expectation of a short, decisive campaign.  I doubt anyone had any idea how disastrously things would turn out.

This blog aims to capture the invasion through the eyes of the soldiers who lived it and to relate that experience as closely as possible to the 200th anniversary of its occurrence.   Having said that, I am about to leave on a trip to France and will be unable to make any posts until I return in the first week of July.

Napoleon Crossing the Niemen
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

In the meanwhile, I encourage you to look back to the posts I made one year ago, the 199th anniversary.  I also suggest you buy a copy of my work of historical fiction about the invasion: Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army.  The book aims to show what the conditions were like for the ordinary soldier on the campaign.  The book is available through the Russian Snows website and through Amazon (paperback and Kindle) as well as Barnes & Noble (Nook).

As always, I welcome contributors as guest bloggers who can blog about conditions on the campaign.  Contact me at ScottArmstrong@RussianSnows.com to make arrangements.

Thank you for reading ~ Scott Armstrong

Image and translation of Commemorative 1912 card provided by Alexey Temnikov