Napoleon died in Moscow!


Napoleon by Delaroche painted in 1845 long after his death.

Claude François de Malet, a general of the French revolutionary wars, resigned his commission when Napoleon became Emperor.  On Oct 23rd in 1812 Malet presented papers that showed Napoleon was killed in Russia.

Malet attempted to take control of France, but his coup was defeated by supporters of Napoleon.  As we all know Napoleon was still alive and returned from Moscow.  Or did he?

Before Moscow Napoleon was the undefeatable General.  Yes his marshalls lost battles, but not the master himself.  One month before his supposed death he defeated the Russians at Borodino.  After Moscow what do we see?  French forces driven backwards out of Russia.  Then defeat after defeat in Prussia and Germany culminating in the disaster for the the French at Leipzig.

A year on Elba and this weak copy of the Emperor raises his army again in the 100 days to Waterloo, and is again defeated.

Which begs the question; was Malet correct?  Did Napoleon Bonaparte die in Moscow.  Did the Napoleonic inner circle hide the truth and replace their leader with a body double?  A double who looked the part, but with none of the military genius.

“But wait” you say “everyone knows what Napoleon looks like”.  Really?  Do they?  His most famous painter Jacques-Louis David could not get Bonaparte to sit as a model.  He reported the following conversation with the Emperor:

Napoleon: ‘[Pose?] For what good? Do you think that the great men of antiquity of whom we have images posed?’

David: ‘But I am painting you for your century, for the men who have seen you, who know you: they will want to find a resemblance.’

Napoleon: ‘A resemblance! It isn’t the exactness of the features, a wart on the nose which gives the resemblance. It is the character of the physiognomy, what animates it, that must be painted. Certainly Alexander never posed for Apelles. Nobody knows if the portraits of great men resemble them. It is enough that their genius lives there.’ 

When we look at the traditional image of Napoleon we see a short dark haired and defeated man.  How different from images captured from early in his life.  A tall, slim man with flowing blonde hair.  Could it be true?  Could the French Emperor have died in Moscow?  Could this be one of the great conspiracy theories of history?



Young Napoleon by Antoine-Jean Gros

Write me a victory


On this day in 1809 Arthur Wellesley became the Viscount Wellington.  This was a man who knew a thing or two about PR in the days before PR was invented.

Born Arthur Wesley in Dublin he was a member of the Protestant ascendancy.  He did not want to be held back by his Irish roots and is  supposed to have said “Because Jesus was born in a stable did not make him a horse.”

He changed the spelling of his name to Wellesley when he was serving in India in a move to brand himself as distinct from his older brother, Richard, Lord Mornington, Governor General of India.

July 28th 1809 was when Wellesley won the Battle of Talavera against the French during the peninsular campaign.  Up to this point he was looked down upon by the military establishment.  He was seen by some of his contemporaries as a “Sepoy” general, a lower class of leader than those who fought in European wars.  He had gained his seniority mainly through the purchase of commissions, which was standard practice at the time.  The British Empire was stabilised by a system where the sons of the nobility and the ruling classes dominated the military through purchase of position.  This prevented the rise of populist demagogues, such as Napoleon.

Wellesley saw some action in Germany and Denmark, but it was in the Peninsular campaign that he was destined to shine.  He defeated every French field marshal in succession before eventually defeating Napoleon himself in Waterloo.

Talavera was his first real test in Iberia.  Despite losing 25% of his troops, and retreating from Spain for a year, Wellesley sold it to London as a victory.  As a result he was ennobled and was known henceforth as Lord Wellington, first as Viscount and later Duke.

Wellington was a quick study.   At Talavera he learned that the Spaniards did not have the resources or matériel to support the British forces in Spain.  While the French and Spanish armies had the ability to live off the land his troops could not.  He could not risk dispersing his men to forage, and having them picked off piecemeal by superior French forces.  He retreated from Spain with a tactical victory which served his interests in London, but giving the strategic victory to the French.  He would not return to Spain until he could guarantee secure supplies for his forces.

At Talavera he also practiced a technique that later made him famous at Waterloo.  He ordered brigades of foot soldiers to lie down on the reverse slopes of elevated positions.  This kept them safe from artillery fire which was designed to clear a path for the French columns.  Once the columns began to march the troops were ordered up and into the “thin red line”.

What I find most interesting about Talavera is that the winning side on the day, the combined British and Spanish forces, lost more troops than the French.  This is often the way in battle.  It is the army that is prepared to take the hard hits that wins the day.  In most battles the losing side withdraws in good order, defeated but not routed.  It is only when the losing side loses formation and collapses that they suffer large losses.  When the fear takes hold, when the common soldiers realise they have lost, and it becomes every man for himself.  The lines break up and the victorious cavalry go to town on retreating infantry.  In battle, in sport and in business it is the ability to weather defeat, to avoid a complete rout, that marks out a side with character.  That is a team with the ability to come back and win the next time.



Growing up in Ireland makes us part of a world that has traditionally been dominated by England.  Much of our understanding of history is influenced by the English weltanschauung.  

A clear incidence of this influence is the celebration of the importance of Battle of Waterloo in the defeat of Napoleon and the studious neglect of the Battle of Leipzig.  Waterloo was fought by the Seventh coalition, led by an Englishman, the Duke of Wellington.  Leipzig was the victory of the Sixth coalition, led by the Russians under Alexander.

In truth the battle of Leipzig was a far more important engagement.  The coalition fought Napoleon at the height of his power and he was roundly defeated for the first time on the battlefield.  Bonaparte lost the battle, but also lost his reputation for invincibility.  He left the legend of his military genius on the field of Leipzig.

The battle was the greatest fought on European soil until the Great War.  Casualties numbered in excess of 100,000 (higher than Borodino, but spread over 4 days) .  By comparison Waterloo, with 60,000 casualties was a sideshow, a last gasp by an already defeated and spent force.

Ranged against Napoleon where the forces of Sweden, Russia, Austria, Prussia, Saxony and Wurttemberg.  In particular it was seen as a great victory for the Germans in the Alliance.  The painting above is entitled “Declaration of Allied Victory after the Battle of Leipzig, 19th October, 1813”, painted by Johann Peter Krafft in 1839.  This painting is a classic piece of propaganda.  It was repainted at least 6 times, re-arranging the prominence of the allied leaders to suit particular commissions.

If only the British played some small part in the sixth coalition then the painting could have been repainted a seventh time.  We could have seen the British Commander take pride of place at the center of European events.  Then we would know all about the Battle of Leipzig.  Instead when we hear about European wars we hear of Blenheim and Waterloo.

The great commander of the day, the General who marched in only one direction, Forwards, was Blucher.  He triumphed at both Leipzig and Waterloo!  He even has a pair of shoes named after him, and his design became the template for all modern mens shoes.

Song of the Grenadiers:

Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules
Of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these.
But of all the world’s great heroes, there’s none that can compare.
With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, to the British Grenadiers.

Those heroes of antiquity ne’er saw a cannon ball,
Or knew the force of powder to slay their foes withal.
But our brave boys do know it, and banish all their fears,
With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, for the British Grenadiers.

Whene’er we are commanded to storm the palisades,
Our leaders march with fusees, and we with hand grenades.
We throw them from the glacis, about the enemies’ ears.
Sing tow, row, row, row, row, row, the British Grenadiers.

And when the siege is over, we to the town repair.
The townsmen cry, “Hurrah, boys, here comes a Grenadier!
Here come the Grenadiers, my boys, who know no doubts or fears!
Then sing tow, row, row, row, row, row, the British Grenadiers.

Then let us fill a bumper, and drink a health of those
Who carry caps and pouches, and wear the loupèd clothes.
May they and their commanders live happy all their years.
With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, for the British Grenadiers.