Josephine de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s Wife
The Battle of Eylau was one of those victories for the Grande Armee that a commander might prefer not to boast about. Rules of engagement for the 15ththrough the 19thcenturies generally gave the win to who ever stayed on the battlefield, a call not unlike a tie that goes to the runner in baseball, something so close a convention of history makes the difference.
The battle itself played out in what is now Northeastern Russia and Estonia. A combined force of 112,000 men clashed on a miserably cold day on February 8th1807. The Prussian Army had been soundly beaten in an attempt to keep Napoleon out of Germany. They retreated eastward to join fresh Russian forces under Levin August Gottlieb Theophil Count von Bennigsen, a Hanoverian who joined the Russian Army as a youth and distinguished himself time and again. He was a conservative General who cared not to waste the lives of his men just for a tab in a history book. He retreated when it made sense and his prudence is probably what put the win in Napoleon’s column. He fielded 67,000 troops and 400 cannon, to Napoleon’s 45,000 troops and 200 cannon. In the early 19thcentury, a 25,000 man advantage in troops was no guarantee in front of Napoleon’s blooded and fierce army. Had Bennigsen pushed his troops at the exact right moment, he still might have lost the battle because the volatile winter weather was fierce enough to stop troops from combat just yards away from each other.
The entire battle was a chess match with split second decisions and snow and ice that changed every decision, every maneuver, every cannon ball. The question asked is why Napoleon, who had faced much larger forces and smashed them, had failed to bring reinforcements in time? Why did he delay bringing Marshall Ney’s forces from Mlawa and Davout’s VI Corp from Golymin? What was going on with the greatest living military figure at the time?
He was in love.
He was also quite married. In 1795, Joesphine de Beauharnais, Keiseriz der Fransen was what might call a cross between a high society matron and a trollop. It was quite common for aristocratic figures to have a mistress; but Josephine was renowned for her liaisons with high society politicians and generals. She met Napoleon in 1975 and an affair started immediately. He wrote to her: “I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night’s intoxicating pleasures has left no rest to my senses.” Few men could say no to Josephine and eventually they married.
I might take a detour to talk about this European tradition of high living generals. It was carried into the New World when General Sir Henry Clinton was made commander of the British forces in America. No sooner did he take his position he began bed bouncing among the more ambitious women who were looking to move up the social ladder. Sometimes that meant that the attractive wife of a British Colonel would make nocturnal visits under a Generals’ bed covers. There was always the chance that a divorce would provide an opening (excuse the pun) for advancement after the war. These European style maneuver generals lived well. They bivouacked in people’s homes, drank the finest wines, enjoyed chamber music and theater and if it were not for the epaulettes, one would simply think they were heirs of a significant fortune.
Napoleon did in fact bivouac with his troops, although he carried with him heavy tents, fine rich furniture, the finest food, and a Guard force of infantry and cavalrymen to save him should he get too close to the battlefield. When winter set in, when night fell, armies generally would set a semi permanent camp and simply rest. During many of those campaigns, Napoleon would bring Josephine with him to the encampment, and she and her own entourage would travel first class, sometimes tracking back through the carnage of battle; burnt villages, bloody wounded soldiers begging for help, that sort of thing.
Napoleon knew late in 1806 that the Russians were maneuvering for a counter attack and would try and pin him against the Vistula or perhaps against the Baltic coast. On December 26th, Bennigsen fought Napoleonic forces to a draw in Pultusk, a virtual win against this historic French general. Napoleon’s best general Marshall Ney found Napoleon away and partying often, oddly distracted at a time when he was most sharp and aggressive.
What he did not know was that Napoleon had met the wife of Athenasius Walewski, the Polish Count. He was devastated and now had to write to Josephine that the war was very difficult now, and therefore she should stay home.
This really is not the end of the story. But when you grow up and read about the number of large scale battles that Napolean won, when you consider how he changed the map of Europe far more than any other man, it’s funny to see that he was felled by a weapon no one is immune from: Cupid’s Arrow.
Polish Countess Walewska, Napoleon’s Mistress
Military History Quartlery Review. Autumn 2009, John Prados, The Emperor’s Tipping Point.
Boatner, Mark Mayo, III. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. 1966; revised 1974.
Originally published at civilianmilitaryintelligencegroup.com on July 19, 2012.