January 20, 2007 cameron

#16 – Eylau, Poland and Maria Walewska

After Napoleon completely crushed the Prussians at Jena-Auerstedt, Europe was in shock. Back home in Paris, some were concerned that Napoleon’s continued success might blind him to opportunities for peace. Meanwhile, Russia’s Czar Alexander had his armies advance on Warsaw, forcing Napoleon to march to meet them. Early in 1807, he fought an extremely bloody but inconclusive battle at Eylau. He also spent time in Warsaw with the other great love of his life – the very young Maria Walewska.

By the way, I screwed up the audio on this show yet again. I think my mic was up too high, picking up too much background noise and making it difficult to raise David’s audio without the background buzz coming up as well. I’ll try hard to get improve it before the next episode!



Comments (28)

  1. Christopher from Perth, Australia

    There should be a disclaimer on this website stating that both Cameron and David are dedicated admirers of the Emperor, otherwise some of the unwary might actually take what they say as historical fact. Napoleon had good intentions for Poland lol

    Not sure why they keep referring to Napoleon as an enlightened saviour of Europe standing up to the various tyrannical monarchies, it just ain’t true. Indeed, Napoleon’s greatest opponent was a liberal England that had it’s own successful revolution a 100 years before that of the French. What did Voltaire say of the English revolution: “The English are the only people upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of kings by resisting them; and who, by a series of struggles, have at last established that wise Government where the Prince is all-powerful to do good, and, at the same time, is restrained from committing evil; where the nobles are great without insolence, though there are no vassals; and where the people share in the Government without confusion.”

    “The English constitution has in fact arrived at that point of excellence, in consequence of which every man is restored to those natural rights, which, in nearly all monarchies, they are deprived of…. And, in truth, invaluable privileges they are in comparison with the usages of most other nations of the world! To be secure on lying down that you shall rise in possession of the same property with which you retired to rest; that you shall not be torn from the arms of your wife, and from your children, in the dead of night, to be thrown into a dungeon or buried in exile in a desert; that, when rising from the bed of sleep, you will have the power of publishing all your thoughts; and that, if you are accused of having either acted, spoken, or written wrongly, you can be tried only according to law…”

    None of what Voltaire says applies to Napoleonic France, which didn’t have freedom of the press, nor was it remotely democratic; in fact it practised political assassination, had a secret police that the gestapo would have been proud of, ballot rigging was common-place and don’t forget that mass murder was practised on the odd occasion.

    I would advise that you take this enjoyable series with a grain of the proverbial salt.

  2. Cameron

    Come now Christopher. Have you even listened to many episodes of our humble little series? I think we try quite hard to call out Napoleon’s weaknesses and mistakes and as the series progresses there will be more to talk about. Yes, we are both dedicated admirers of Napoleon, but we’re also more than willing to admit his shortcomings. Are you able to do the same about England?

    Despite the indisputable good things about their own constitution, you cannot deny that if there was one country most responsible for the “Napoleonic Wars” it was England!

    While some of your criticisms (mass murder???) of Napoleonic France might be true they, like all history, must be seen in context of the times. That’s what this series is all about. Napoleon came to power after an extremely bloody and corrupt revolution. Before and after his rise to power, France was continually at war with the other European powers, due in large part to England’s constant meddling, and had war-time laws.

    Can you name me one peace treaty that Napoleon ever broke?

    It is true, and we’ve said this many times on the show, that England had a lot of good qualities in the 19th century. Yet they were certainly not perfect and I think you would struggle to deny that they were the cause of much of the conflict in Europe during that century.

    And today, in the 21st century, England *still* doesn’t have the moral fortitude to let go of their monarchy. France is at least enlightened enough, thanks in large part to Napoleon, to have let that anachronism rest with history where it belongs.

  3. Joshua Parker

    I’m reading ‘1812 Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow’ myself right now and I agree it is a most impressive and objective assessment of all involved in that terrible campaign. Certainly it would be foolish to write any paper on the topic without referring to this great book.

    I’ve actually seen it available in several Angus and Robertson stores in Australia at the moment so its in wide distribution.

  4. Chris,

    I am sorry that you seem to feel that having a positive opinion of Napoleon means we are incapable of telling accurate history. Actually, I find that rather insulting for, as a historian and an educator, I believe in telling history as I believe it to be, based on careful research and reading.

    But read the introduction to my book, Napoleon’s Road to Glory. I point out mistakes and shortcomings, and end with this comparison:

    “There is a great deal of sadness in this struggle to the death between Great Britain and France, or rather between Great Britain and Napoleon. Napoleon’s France, especially during the Consulate, was the most enlightened nation in Europe. Napoleon’s detractors do not like this fact but there can be little doubt of its truth.
    The second most enlightened nation of Europe, before Napoleon brought his reforms to other nations, was undoubtedly that of the British. It was English law, the Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution, the idea of habeas corpus that served as the philosophical foundation for the upheavals in America and France.
    The story of this conflict is without doubt the story of how perceived economic and military self-interest gained the ascendancy over ideology and the benefits of peace. That the story of the wars of this period is largely the story of conflict between the two most enlightened nations of Europe is an irony of the highest magnitude.”

    I hope that shows you that I fully appreciate what the British accomplished, and it effect on the US and France. But the fact remains, as Cameron and I have made clear time and time again. It was Great Britain’s insistance on keeping up the fight against Napoleon, even when the other nations of Europe were prepared to try peace, that led to much of the history that we discuss. I am very sorry that you don’t understand that.

    And Joshua, I couldn’t agree with you more. That book is among the very best Napoleonic books in recent years.

    Best to you all,


  5. Bob

    I’m rather new to Napoleonic history and your podcast has been a terrific introduction to the material and has whet my appetite for more information (my bed stand has a growing mountain of books waiting to be read).

    From other readings, however, I’ve noticed that many historians disagree with some of your assessments of Napoleon’s qualities, albeit none as strongly as Christopher. I’ve often found myself wanting to hear a show or two with a guest speaker who can engage in an informed and structured debate with the two of you — just to get the “other side” of the story.

  6. Cameron

    Hi Bob! That’s a great idea. I’m actually planning on inviting other historians to argue the other side of the story with us as a special episode (perhaps even a few) at the end of the series.

    One thing you’ll find as you read more Napoleonic literature is that it is FULL of disagreement! That’s one of the reasons, I suspect, that it is such a fascinating subject. Over the years I have deliberately gone out of the way to buy books which take a critical tone in order to try and understand the other perspective.

    One thing I think all of us agree on though is that he was neither all good nor all bad. And that’s certainly the way I’m hoping we portray him on this show. He was, like most of us, a very complex human being. When you rise to the kind of power he had, at such a young age, you are bound to have other issues than most of us have to deal with as well.

    Either way, whether people think he was mostly good or mostly bad, we all agree that he accomplished amazing things in a short period of time.

    And the fact that we are still talking about him and 200 years later says something!

  7. Chris Sloan

    Hi there,

    I, too, think that Christopher from Perth is being a touch unfair, here, although I’m not sure I would agree with Cameron’s views on the Monarchy 🙂 It seems to me that, for much of European history, at least from Cromwell on, the British, or at least, the English were responsible for a lot of bad, and not much of it in the name of high-minded ideals like liberty and enlightenment, but rather in the name of keeping their commerce and industry afloat. English gold and a small English army kept Louis the XIV in check, not necessarily to restrict French hegemony, but to protect continental ports and English trade. English gold and English arms kept Maria Teresa in the fight during the Austrian Succession, while the English snuck around the globe gobbling up colonies. Ironically, they did the same thing less than 20 years later, but this time AGAINST her when they financially supported Frederick the Great in his efforts to recover Silesia–again, funding the fighting in Europe so that they could gobble up more territory overseas relatively unnoticed. England may have had an enlightened and liberal society/government during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (although you may want to check in with the Scots and Irish over that, and Native Americans, and aboriginal Australians, and Indians, Chinese, Indonesians…oh, never mind, you get the picture), but they certainly didn’t always act from lofty principles. To me, British participation in the “Napoleonic” Wars followed a pattern set long before the birth of a certain little Corsican boy: keep ’em distracted and take what you can when their backs are turned.

    And all this from a fairly committed anglophile and monarchist!

  8. Cameron

    Well bless your little cotton socks Chris, I’ll even forgive you(momentarily) for being a monarchist.

  9. Hi –

    Just adding to the general comments really.

    I too feel that is is unfair to judge Napoleon on today’s standard of ‘democracy’ (although this in itself is a contentious issue – a subject best avoided here I suspect!). When compared to the rule of the absolute monarchs who ruled by divide right, at the very least he comes out looking extremely enlighten and competent by comparison!

    I must also be fair to say that, in general, where Napoleon went and made social change, power was transferred from the traditional ruling classes and benefited society rather than any one group. Let’s compare him to say (Tsar) Alexander who talked about enlightenment but never really understood it. Indeed the Russians were quite concerned about arming the militia in defence of the mother country least they rise up; after all they were still property i.e. slaves. What continbution did Alexander make to democracy?

    One also has to wonder, that if Napoleon was infact just a tyrant, what did he have to gain from many of his changes that he did not already have? Sure, some action cemented him in place; but how did the desire for a unified system of measurement, common law, increased access to education or increased commerce, not benefit a great many people? I believe that there was a genuine altruistic intent behind many of his changes and that such change encouraged democracy rather than stifled it.

    In any case, I also wanted to take the opportunity to say that I for one appreciate an alternative view from much current knowledge. I think that the debate that you are generating is healthy and robust!

    Can I recommend a web site that I have enjoyed? For those interested in the military side of the Napoleonic period – and in particular an alternative view of Waterloo…


    I am sure that some peoples’ heads will explode with moral outrage at some of the views as it draws heavily from many otherwise unavailable non-English sources, but it is also a great read.

    Once again – thanks for the effort, I will continue to enjoy the pod cast!


    Kelly Gay
    New Zealand

  10. Cameron

    Thanks Kelly! Had a quick look through that site, definitely looks interesting with lots of content!

  11. Christopher from Perth, Australia

    I find it interesting that all and sundry think I’m being a bit harsh on th Emperor yet nobody was able to refute one of my unfair ‘criticisms’ – although Cameron did give me the the multiple question mark thingmabob.

    I make no apologies, in fact I reiterate what I wrote before. Cameron is always waffling on about the unenlightened crowned heads of Europe living in fear of French liberty and democracy. Then you have Mr. Markham telling us that the murder of 4000 Turkish prisoners at Jaffa is ok because Henry V murdered 100 French nobles at Agincourt. Moreover, no mention was made of the Emperor’s longest and costliest campaign of all. I could go on ad infinitum…

    Chris, no one in their right mind could argue that colonisation or empire was good for any native people, whether they be the Aboriginal people of North America, Australia or Asia, but some form of empire was always going to be inevitable in the lives of these native peoples. The Dutch, almost certainly more than the English, were heralds of the enlightened age, yet were no better when it came to treatment of native peoples the world over. Indeed, I could be cheeky and say that the Native Americans were better off as British subjects than they were under the very enlightened American republic, who would argue against that, hmm?

    Cameron, you ask of a peace treaty the Emperor broke? I can go one better – how about unprovoked naked aggression against an allied nation? That’s exactly what he did when he attempted to occupy Spain. Moreover, most unbiased historians argue that it was indeed the Emperor that broke The Treaty of Amiens (the French were still occupying Holland and Savoy, and had just marched into Switzerland)

    I am entitled to my opinion as much as the next man and I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that a historian sitting in his study surrounded by his beloved Napoleonic memorabilia in… “all my imperial glory” is slightly inclined to see his hero in a positive light.

    As another American historian once wrote: “Generally speaking, men are influenced by books which clarify their own thought, which express their own notions well, or which suggest to them ideas which their minds are already predisposed to accept.” He went on …” “All historians, even the most scientific, have bias, if in no other sense than the determination not to have any.”

  12. Cameron

    Chris, of course you are entitled to your opinion! As we are entitled to debate the validity of your statements. Especially your suggestion that David and I are so “pro” Napoleon that we deny his shortcomings or mistakes, which is blatantly false.

    To refute your criticisms, you have to be more specific what they actually are. Most of your comment was a quote from Voltaire. Then you made some claims about Napoleonic France, most of which are partially true, and which, as I said, have to be seen in context of the France that Napoleon inherited. No-one is denying most of those things. Napoleon was a highly complex character. That’s one reason he is so much fun to study.

    You claim that that under Napoleon, “mass murder” was committed. Can you give an example?

    As for Spain, I will readily agree with you that this wasn’t his finest decision and he paid for it dearly. He didn’t break a peace treaty with the Spanish Bourbons though. He basically just threw them out when they wouldn’t support his proposed invasion of Portugal. He tried, though, to bring the benefits of the Revolution to Spain but never succeeded, partially due to Joseph’s failure as the new King, partially due of course to the enmity of the peasants.

    Once again I’ll repeat what I’ve said earlier. Of course David and I are fans of Napoleon. We’ve never tried to hide or deny that. That doesn’t mean, however, that we have anything to gain by denying his mistakes or shortcomings.

    Now… can you do the same about England?

  13. Tim Van Dyck

    Dear Cameron, David and all the listeners,

    ‘On March 3 at Jaffa, matters began to become serious. Conforming to local custom, Bonaparte sent an emissary to the military commandant to offer to spare the lives of the garrison in exchange for its immediate surrender. In case of refusal, the French would not grant quarter. This was the merciless and unique rule in force during the war.

    The only response was to ostentatiously display on the ramparts the severed head of the messenger. This barbarous provocation was obviously not of a nature to encourage mercy. Matters were displayed in stark simplicity: there would be no pity on either side.

    The fortress resisted for two days of ferocious combat. The sack of the town was ghastly. The French soldiers had a lively recollection of the horrible massacre of hundreds of their comrades during the Cairo insurrection. They remembered the fate reserved to stragglers and lost soldiers, savagely murdered after unspeakable tortures and mutilations. Thus they were enraged against the garrison and against the inhabitants captured with weapons in hand. In such circumstances, it was impossible to avoid excesses. At least the officers attempted to limit and block the more extreme actions, conforming to Bonaparte’s instructions. Among many others, General Robin did not hesitate, at the risk of his life, to take his saber to his own soldiers in order to halt such debaucheries.

    It was in these atrocious circumstances that the tragic execution of some 2,500 Turkish prisoners, the majority of them Albanians, occurred. The last to resist had taken refuge in the citadel, their fate already sealed by their previous refusal to capitulate. Just before they would have been destroyed, Bonaparte nonetheless sent Eugene de Beauharnais and another aide de camp, Crozier, “to calm as much as possible the furor of the soldiers. As soon as these two were recognized by their distinctive insignia, the besieged asked to surrender to them, on condition that their lives should be spared. Listening only to their better nature, and in defiance of the death sentence implicitly pronounced against the combatants, these two officers accepted their surrender and conducted them to the French camp.

    This was an appalling misunderstanding! Bonaparte had sent his aides solely to save the women, children, and old people and not to make an exception concerning combatants.

    The French commander was thus placed in a terrible crisis of conscience. If he honored the measure of clemency promised by his aides de camp, his intractable enemy would regard it as a mark of weakness, thereby encouraging resistance to the death. Future operations would be compromised.

    On a practical plane, this human mass was unmanageable. The severe shortage of food made it impossible to feed the prisoners. A negotiated exchange of prisoners with El Jezzar was unthinkable. To simply abandon these men in the open desert would be to condemn most of them to a slow and horrible death, with the survivors rejoining the ranks of enemy combatants.

    In the higher interests of the mission, therefore, Bonaparte was forced to execute them in cold blood, fulfilling a death sentence that would have been applied without moral dilemma if it had occurred in the heat of action.

    Yet, he only took this cruel measure with the agreement of his major subordinates, obtained after long deliberation in a council of war. Each one was asked for his opinion, and the first meeting ended without agreement. Two subsequent meetings failed to resolve the issue. Finally, in a long meeting attended by all the generals of division, the council bowed to the inevitable.

    It was a horrible butchery that does not deserve further comment.

    Decidedly, Jaffa did not bring luck to the army. An epidemic of the plague broke out and spread rapidly. Some were tempted to regard this as a manifestation of impending punishment. In fact, the first cases had appeared in Alexandria before the departure, and Bonaparte had hoped that the illness would not follow him. El Jezzar and the British could not have wished for a better ally! The morale of the army plummeted despite the devotion and competence of the chief physician, Desgenettes, and his staff.’

    This was from a text written by General Michel Franceshi on the Egyptian campaign.

    Best Regards,

    Tim Van Dyck

  14. Tim Van Dyck

    And here is the second one, written by Ben Weider in his Life of Napoleon:

    ‘Capture of Jaffa

    On March 4, the French arrived at Jaffa, a fortified city on a hill defended by 3000 men. While commencing the siege work, Napoleon wrote a message to the commandant of the city: “To avoid great misfortune falling on the city, I ask you to surrender peacefully. God is good and generous and we respect his Commandments. If you refuse my offer, you will be annihilated. Signed Napoleon Bonaparte.”

    The aide-de-camp presented himself before a door of the compound with four cavalrymen as escort. The door opened, and the delegation of peace messengers were admitted. A few minutes later, five bloody heads were displayed on spearheads on the battlements, and upon looking closely, it was seen that before being decapitated, the men had been subjected to the most odious of tortures: their genitals had been stuffed into their mouths.

    The French had observed the spectacle from the trench. It scarcely needs saying that their attack was extremely efficient, provoked by such an act of barbarity. The city was taken in no time at all, and the 1800 surviving prisoners were herded unceremoniously onto the beach.

    Then followed the event which ever since, has caused so much to be written by the enemies of Napoleon, who continue to exploit it, to fuel their slander against his memory. This was the elimination of the prisoners. Napoleon had no means of feeding them. If he had given them their freedom, they would have returned immediately to the ranks of the enemy, who were already far superior in numbers. This is what Stendhal said about the dilemma: “A military leader must decide to sacrifice four enemies if that can save the life of three of his soldiers.” It was with great reluctance that Napoleon chose the decision imposed upon him by circumstances. But he made some exceptions: he allowed 500 prisoners of Egyptian origin to return in freedom to the banks of the Nile. The rest were assembled with their backs to the sea, which allowed a large number to escape by swimming towards the rocks, where they waited for the French to depart. The great Sir Winston Churchill was nowhere near as considerate when he coldly murdered 1700 French sailors who were not even his enemies, but his allies.’

    Best Regards,

    Tim Van Dyck

  15. Cameron

    Tim, just to clarify – are you agreeing that Jaffa qualifies as “mass murder” or are you agreeing with our comments during the episode #7 that this act was justified (although obviously regrettable)execution of prisoners of war during a campaign?

  16. Tim Van Dyck

    Dear Cameron, David and all the listeners,

    I agree that this was a very regrettable but uninevitable thing Napoleon had to do in this war-situation, he was horrified of it, he wrote to Directory in a letter that he never had so been horrified by war…

    Best Regards,

    Tim Van Dyck

  17. Christopher from Perth, Australia

    “The great Sir Winston Churchill was nowhere near as considerate when he coldly murdered 1700 French sailors who were not even his enemies, but his allies.”

    Going on a bit strong there, Timmy. But an interesting analogy never the less:

    I would say that the Emperor’s execution of Turkish prisoners at Jaffa would qualify as murder in the second degree; the destruction of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir, though regretable in the extreme, could hardly qualify as ‘cold-blooded murder’. I could be wrong?

    I think that the whole Egyptian campaign proves the limits of Napoleon as a commander, it certainly proves he was no Alexander, huh? What was the first thing Alexander concentrated on in his war with Persia? Their navy! He spent two years in Syria, Phoenicia and Egypt denying the Persian fleet use of their ports because he understood that sea-power could deny him ultimate victory. Napoleon never did come to this conclusion, and it cost him.

    It’s becoming that the Emperor gave the honour of his surrender to the Royal Navy, after all they were the reason that his famous guiding star faded into a state of nullity.

  18. Tim Van Dyck

    Dear Cameron, David and all the listeners,

    Dear Christopher,

    I will not describe the execution at Jaffa as a second degree murder, it was an extremely regretable but necesarry measure, but I am ‘happy’ to note that you do not place it in the category ‘mass murder’…

    I woudn’t say that Egypt proves his limits as a commander, in my view he surpassed Alexander, but I was interested in your remark, I didn’t know that of Alexander…As you know the French Navy was defeated at Aboukir by Nelson, but Napoleon had ordered that the navy had to take refuge in Corfou or Malta…but the person who carried the message was killed. Concerning Egypt, I would like to draw your attention to a very interesting and big text written by General Michel Franceshi:


    I hope you find it interesting.

    He surrendered to the Royal Navy, but thit they answered his esteem with the same degree of honour?

    I think his star is still rising…

    I send you all my best regards,

    Tim (or apparantly Timmy) Van Dyck

  19. Jack

    I’m not going to enter into the debate about whether or not the French under Napoleon were more or less enlightened than the British


    I will say that I doubt that sons of livery keepers (Lannes), innkeepers (Murat), or barrel makers (Ney) could rise to become marshalls, let alone lieutenants, in Britain at that time.

    Great podcast(s)!! Please continue and thank you for the great work! I look forward to your treatise on the 1809 campaign in Austria.


  20. lily

    account for napolean
    s rise to power, was he a military genius or was it the historical social/economic circumstances that made it enevitable for him to rise to power

  21. Cameron

    Lily, why do I get the feeling you are asking me to do your homework for you?

    But what the heck.

    He was a military genius but more than that. He was also a brilliant civil administrator. And success didn’t just fall in his lap. Listen to some of our earlier shows where we talk about his early struggles to be recognized and the calculated risks he took in his rise to power.

  22. Christopher from Perth, Australia

    “I will say that I doubt that sons of livery keepers (Lannes), innkeepers (Murat), or barrel makers (Ney) could rise to become marshalls, let alone lieutenants, in Britain at that time.”

    Jack, In Britain they usually became Admirals.

    Hood, Jervis, Nelson, Collingwood et.al

  23. Tim Van Dyck

    Dear Cameron, David and all the listeners,

    It was thanks to the Revolution and especially thanks to Napoleon that finally there was something like ‘career open to talent’, and if is was the same way in Britain that time, well the better for the British, but I doubt that it was on the same ‘scale’ as in Consular and Imperial France…

    I send you all my best Regards,


  24. Christopher from Perth, Australia

    Hello Tim,

    No doubt that Napoleon promoted his talented Generals, who could blame him? To me ‘a career open to talent’ means so much more than what an army could, and should, achieve. Georgian England was very snobbish and had a very strong class system (especially the army) but also it had had a successful middle class that no other nation in Europe could compete with. Even Napoleon called England a nation of shopkeepers – how right he was… middle-class shops and small businesss were everywhere. Could this be reason a nation of 5(1700) to 10 million(1800) defeated a nation of 20 to 25 million – and ending up triumphant in the 2nd Hundred Years War?

    Dr Johnston: ” An English tradesman is a new species of gentleman”

    David Robinson: …”in most other societies, society presents hardly anything but a void between an ignorant labouring population and a needy and profligate nobility… But with the English the space between the ploughman and the peer is crammed with a circle after circle, fitted in the most admirable manner for sitting upon each other, for connecting the former with the latter, and for rendering the whole perfect in cohesion, strength and beauty.”

    Patrick Colquehoun: …”it is not an excess of property of the few but the extension of it among the mass of the community, which appears most likely to prove beneficial with respect to national wealth and national happiness. Perhaps no other country in the world possesses greater advantages in this respect than Great Britain, and hence that spirit of enterprise and that profitable employment of diffused capitals which has created so many resources for productive labour beyond any other country in Europe.”

  25. Tim Van Dyck

    Dear Cameron, David and all the listerners,

    Hello Christopher,

    Napoleon and ‘career open to talent’ was not only something for the army, it was also the ‘rule’ in the administration,…at each level of the government. You must not forget that Great Britain had already gone through centuries of evolution towards the situation you described with these citations, and that Napoleon in fact still had to begin, to build an entire modern society which was so prosperous as England apparantly was. He had only 15 years, while the British already had centuries behind them…

    There is an account of a British lady travelling in 1817 through France, and she was really astonished by the prosperity of the countryside, the farmers of ‘peasants’…a prosperity which was completely thanks to Napoleon who estimated those people very highly.

    I send you my best regards,


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