Thursday, January 13, 2011

At Eylau, on the Baltic

Overnight temperatures held at 30 degrees F on February 7-8, with several feet of snow already on the ground. In 1807, you did not want to be there. There would be no foraging, it had been done by others. There would no food for the horses, that couldn't be rip-ped from roofs of peasant hovels. There would be no linens for the wounded that couldn't be cut away from 12,000 tents. And on the morning of the 8th, with the wind at their backs, 72 Russian cannon opened fire on Napoleon's entire VII corps on foot, massed in a blinding blizzard under Marshall Augereau. No painting hangs of this inside Les Invalides.

Rather, we see the famous canvas of Murat's cavalry charge, deployed just before noon on fresh new mounts captured from the Prussians, followed swiftly by Lepic's Horse Grenadiers, drawn from the cream of the Imperial Guard. In a maneuver still on the curriculum at Sandhurst and St Cyr, the entire Allied line was broken and hurled back in the afternoon fog. Yet the day, an ostensibly immortal victory, was one of the great disasters in the history of France, shattering not only memories of Austerlitz but the mind of its architect for the rest of his restless career.

Twenty-three generals of France and 25 thousand of her sons were not, may we say, lost. They were all shredded by canister shot, knives, musket balls and explosives, to ooze into the ruined meadow in the thaws of March. This is what hap-pened to the price of Louisiana, and for auctioneers to hawk com-modes of Empire. Napoleon remained at Eylau, uncharacteristically, for several days; Baron Gros immor-talises his ashen face as he rides among the ghosts of the living and the dead, inhaling victory. He'd rest awhile, and restore his appetite, but Eylau exposed his weakness to his enemy and his men.

Now he'd dip hungrily into the youth of France from the student class of 1808, to raise an army of a hundred thousand more. Spring would freshen the ground for their advance to Königsberg, where they finally cornered Bennigsen, his nemesis at Eylau, with his back to the Alle River. Now, there was nothing to forestall that meeting in June on a tethered raft on the neutral River Niemen, a thousand miles from Paris, where the sovereigns of Prussia and the Russian empire appeared to sign away resistance. Paintings exalting the occasion hang from St. Petersburg to Paris, and are shown to impressionable children. We do not apologise for the right pictures. 

Alastair Horne
How Far from Austerlitz
Macmillan, 1996©

Jean-Paul Kauffmann
The Black Room at Longwood
Patricia Clancy, translation
Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999©

Clément Chabernaud
Brett Kallio
Francisco Lachowski


  1. Excellent! "Inhaling victory" - the essence of warfare.

  2. It's a terrible place to go with a blog, BL, but sometimes we need to be able to agree to go there. Still, you've just been writing well of one of the places on the planet most recurringly identified with torment and butchery - to speak only of mentalities - and of course one is probably the 90,000th to invoke that phrase, as you are generous not to say.

    But the proximate cause of that allusion in this posting is not Horne, a historian I've admired extensively, but Kauffmann, a man I didn't know, whose book was discovered in a real bookshop, killed off by box stores, in an alley off Union Square, which was the longest-lived literary mainstay of San Francisco until it expired in the late '90s, now to be surpassed in seniority by the beloved City Lights, but never to be equalled again in cultivation and service to readers in that city. I'll return to it, naturally.

    Kauffmann's text, you'd admire greatly. It has a persistent olfactory sense, enriching its sympathetic gift for imagery beyond expectation. Again, I find myself indebted and invigorated to contemplate that one could be writing for your observation.

  3. ================================================

    Your pics are so HUMMMMMMMMM......
    Beautiful !
    Have a super friday !

  4. Laurent has never resisted an instruction so consistent with his intent. :)