Man and Emperor
Napoleon I, Emperor of France, King of Italy, Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine and Grand Duchy of Warsaw, Marshal-General of le Grande Armee, watched as the Battle of the Nations unfolded beneath him. Situated on a hilltop just behind French lines, he saw the forces of the Fourth Coalition batter against the barricades of his Grand Army. It was the autumn of 1813, and the skies of the eastern German town of Leipzig were ocean blue, but the clouds of gun smoke made the sky seem as if the largest summer thunderhead was fast approaching, with the reports form the muskets and cannon below adding to the atmosphere of lightning.
The battle at Leipzig had not been his plan. In fact, he looked back, he hadn't planned any of this. If it hadn't been for the disastrous retreat from Moscow nearly nine months before, leaving only a smashed thirty thousand survivors from the Grand Army's original quarter-million, he would not have been in this position. Now, a Fourth Coalition had been formed against him, his former allies of Austria and Prussia joining with England, Sweden, and Russia; the Grand Duchy of Warsaw had been lost to him, occupied by the Prussians and Russians; and the Coalition had already occupied Dresden, his former eastern command center. Meanwhile, on the other side of Europe, Wellington's forces and the Spanish guerillas had already advanced to the Pyrenees, and would soon enter France itself. To Emperor Napoleon, it seemed like the enemy had finally studied his tactics enough to use them against him.
As he watched, a regiment of the Imperial Guard, the pride and joy of the Grand Army, rode out into battle against the fortifications of the Army of the Coalition, quickly followed by a battalion of regular infantry. The Imperial Guard, the Empire's bravest, smartest, most dedicated and loyal of soldiers had spent the past year and a half fighting the Spanish resistance fighters in the Peninsular War. After the Russian disaster, and the success of the Duke of Wellington, the Emperor had dispatched orders for them to come west, to help defend the heart of Germany from the Coalition. They had speed marched the over two-thousand-mile route in under three months, and had arrived more ready to fight than the current troops had been.
However, even the seasoned and devoted veterans proved incapable of storming the defences of the Russian Army of the North. Unlike the normal troops, however, they did not turn back; so fanatical were they in their defence of the Empire and their emperor, they continued to attack the barricades until the last of them had perished in the fire of the Russian muskets. The wounded remainders of the infantry crawled back towards the French lines; their moans sounded like the wails of the ancients at the death of some behemoth god. He watched as corpsmen ran to take the wounded to the medical tents; he remembered how he had toured the wounded of the Army of the Orient in his expedition in Egypt. He gave a silent prayer to his chief surgeon, Jean Larrey, for inventing the remarkable sleeping gas, chloroform. He remembered how loud the screams of the wounded had been before then, and involuntarily shuddered.
A corps officer rode up to the Emperor's small enclave. As he drew nearer, Emperor Napoleon recognized the visage of General Fontanelli, the marshal of the Army of Italy, the position he had held nearly twenty years ago in the zenith of the Republic. Fontanelli dismounted from his horse, turned towards him, and saluted. L'Empereur curtly returned it. "My King," the marshal began, in Italian leagues better than that of Emperor Napoleon, "the Army of Italy has received high casualties. I have no corps left at full strength, and the men-"
"The men are what?"
Fontanelli sighed. "My soldiers are ever willing to serve you, my King, but they are wondering if they'll ever see their wives and children again, if they'll ever see the Alps and Cisalpines. They are beginning to wonder how much longer we can hold out against the Russians and Austrians."
The Emperor grew red, and began to form a vitriolic reply, when a cavalry scout approached. Saluting, he hurriedly reported: "Sir, VI Corps scouts report that the Army of Bohemia is moving towards Lindeneau Bridge."
That bridge was the Grand Army's main escape route from Leipzig. Should it fall to the Coalition Army of Bohemia, and then they would be trapped behind enemy lines. The Emperor and his select entourage would be lucky to escape, let alone the two hundred thousand of his soldiers and Imperial subjects. He turned his gaze back towards the raging Battle of the Nations, watched as each side whittled itself down in attack after counter-attack, like wild bears sparring. It was clear that he could no longer win the fight, and to stay here with the Coalition on the move was certain suicide. Bonaparte made up his mind.
The cavalry lieutenant seemed to misunderstand the Emperor's pause for thought as a lapse of it. "What should I tell the marshal to do about the Corps, my Emperor?" he asked, concern creeping into his voice.
The Emperor chose to overlook the lieutenant's impulsiveness. Softly sighing yet again, he replied, "Very well, Lieutenant. Give General Headquarters my compliments, and inform them to signal general retreat to all armies. Mobilize VI Corps and III Cavalry to intercept the Army of Bohemia before they reach the bridge. General Fontanelli, I suggest that you return to your army." Bitterly, he added, "Inform your soldiers that they may see Italy sooner than we all thought." Saluting, the two subordinates remounted and left Bonaparte.
Making sure they were both out of earshot, he sighed again. He looked out over the Battle of the Nations once more; the sky had darkened to twilight from the musket and cannon smoke. In his mind, Bonaparte formed a new plan. His best bet was to retreat across Germany, all the way to France proper. The Army of the Coalition would overextend their supply and communication lines, and hopefully be easy prey to the National Guard units already in France, and to the Grand Army. Of course, that was a small hope. He would be abandoning the Confederation of the Rhine and France's Illyrian Provinces, and leave Helvetia and Italy open and vulnerable to attack. Plus, there was the matter of Wellington's Coalition army to France's south, which was possibly already invading the Empire.
For the first time since Russia, Bonaparte suddenly realized that it was only a matter of time before he was trapped between the two armies, France defeated. His empire was dead; it just didn't know it yet.
Like a dying leviathan, the Grand Army slowly made its way out of Leipzig. Napoleon Bonaparte, citizen of France, made his way out to meet it.