napoleon invades moscow -- 7/02/14

Today's selection -- from Red Fortress by Catherine Merridale. In 1812, Napoleon invaded Moscow, only to find the city abandoned, and then set on fire by Moscow's leaders -- a brilliant and completely unexpected defensive move. A six-day blaze then destroyed the city along with any food and treasure that might have been used to supply the French troops. At this pivotal moment Napoleon delayed -- one of the most disastrous decisions of his career with the Russian winter approaching -- and thus sealed the doom of his army:

"[As Napoleon's Grand Armée approached], Moscow was now almost defenceless. [Moscow city leader Fedor] Rostopchin still averred that it would stand, but even as he spoke, the order had been given to pack and evacuate the city's historic treasures. Jewels, icons and gold from the Kremlin were carted south and east to the Volga and Vladimir; other items, including parts of the Chudov Monastery archive, were interred underneath the Kremlin walls. But there was very little time. On 13 September, as some of his aides were preparing to engage with the French again, [Russian military leader Prince Mikhail] Kutuzov announced his decision to abandon the old capital. 'Moscow is not the whole of Russia,' he explained. 'To save Russia we need an army; to save the army we must give up the idea of defending Moscow.' ...

"Among [Rostopchin's] final acts was an order to withdraw the fire-brigade and sink the city's fleet of fire-boats. He also had the prison-gates unlocked, and the upshot was a night of looting, the scale of which remains unknowable. ...

"For the soldiers in the Grande Armée, however, those residences still seemed good enough. Many officers were so confident about the pleasures ahead that they had packed their bags with evening dress. ...

"Here at last was a cause in which exhausted soldiers could believe, a reward equal to the price in blood and effort and months on the road. Napoleon, no stranger to the capture of great cities, paused to await the usual delegation. It was only after a long interval, when no-one turned up with the city's keys, with bread and salt, that the depth of Moscow's silence started to impinge. ... The throne was still in place, he found, and even the Kremlin's innumerable clocks were ticking. 'The city is as big as Paris,' the emperor wrote his wife. It seemed 'provided with everything'.

"That very night, however, the picture changed. While Napoleon rested in the Kremlin, surrounded by the flower of his army, his sentries on the high brick walls noticed a new glow in the Moscow dark. There had been several small fires since the French arrived, and each had been blamed on the carelessness of troops. This time, by almost all accounts, the blaze was being set deliberately, a co-ordinated campaign of arson that made the best use of an equinoctial wind. ... In the space of an hour or less, the blaze turned to a steady roar, punctuated by explosions and the clatter of collapsing masonry and metal roofs. The French emperor and his aides were in acutest peril, for there were still explosives in the Kremlin arsenal, and they themselves had recently brought a battery of artillery into the fortress stationing it, for safety, under the palace windows. For a whole night and through the next morning, the future of Napoleon's campaign, and his very life, depended on the vagaries of airborne sparks.

"For some hours, the emperor stayed in his palace suite, pacing the wooden floors and watching through each window as he passed. The longed-for treasure shrivelled up before his eyes; he cursed the Russians for their barbarism. Despite entreaties from his aides, however, he refused to make an early move. By the night of 15 September, as one of his officers recalled, the firestorm was so bright outside that it was possible to read by its light without the need for oil lamps. But the next day was the worst of all. Even Napoleon could not hold out when the Kremlin arsenal finally caught fire. A decision was taken to withdraw, to make for the Petrovsky Palace on the Petersburg road. By this time, however, the citadel, as Ségur wrote, was 'besieged by an ocean of fire'. ...

"The French elite escaped that day, helped by a local man who knew the routes, but thousands of others remained trapped, condemned to the most cruel death. ... After six days of fire, the worst Moscow had ever seen, strings of pitiful figures, as insubstantial as ghosts, emerged into the wreckage of their city. Even when the smoke had cleared, the ruins stank of rot and soot and death; the stench was nauseating several miles away. There was scarcely a green leaf anywhere, hardly a tree to punctuate the horizon. A bitter economics ruled. Anyone could snatch a fine snuffbox or set of silver spoons, but food of any kind was almost unobtainable. In the fields beyond Moscow, groups of French troops built their campfires out of mahogany furniture and gilded window-frames. When it was time to eat, however, their only hope was rotten horseflesh.

"Napoleon moved back to the [Kremlin] on 18 September. His mood had soured, and two days later, his bulletin announced that 'Moscow, one of the most beautiful and wealthy cities of the world, exists no more.' Despite that loss, however, the Corsican persisted with a doomed attempt to build some kind of life among the ruins. Though almost none of the local population supported it, a Moscow government was decreed, with orders to collect the corpses and maintain the peace. Theatrical performances were commissioned, and concerts, featuring an Italian soloist with piano accompaniment, were held in the Kremlin palace to help pass the nights.The decision to indulge in makeshift luxury, bizarre enough at any time, turned out to be one of the most disastrous of Napoleon's entire career. As the milder days of autumn faded, so did the last options for the French. Napoleon could surely not have hoped to feed and lodge his army in this city through the winter. There was almost no fodder for the vast stable of horses, either. A retreat was inevitable, and the sooner it began, as Napoleon himself later conceded, the better his army's chances would have been. For now, however, the general sulked, spending long hours over his food and settling his stout frame along a damask-covered chaise, novel in hand, throughout the heavy interval of afternoon."


Catherine Merridale


Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin


Metropolitan Books a Henry Holt and Company, LLC


Copyright 2013 by Catherine Merridale


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment