“It would be the height of madness”

Another excerpt from Dedem de Gelder, backtracking to the 1812 campaign. After Napoleon’s abandonment of the Grande Armée (the command of which he had left to Murat), the political ramifications of the disastrous campaign are already being felt; the Prince of Schwarzenberg confirms to Dedem that Austria, Napoleon’s reluctant ally since his marriage to Marie-Louise, is looking to reestablish ties with Russia, and the two sides have been exchanging intelligence. Dedem sets out to inform Davout, Eugène de Beauharnais, and Murat of the Russian plans to attack the retreating French forces. He receives three very different responses.

(Source: Un Général Hollandais sous le premier empire: Mémoires du Général Baron de Dedem de Gelder, 1774-1825; Paris, 1900. Pages 296-299.)


As I was quite intimate with the Prince of Schwarzenberg, he opened up to me and gave me all the details of the interviews about which there were so many rumors; he charged me to speak of them in Paris, as well as of his military position, of his operations, and of what he intended to do. This interview gave was very illuminating for me, and I clearly saw that the Prince of Schwarzenberg, foreseeing that the French faction would shortly be getting the worst of it in the cabinet of Vienna, did not want to expose himself to reproaches for having been the partisan of Napoleon, and that, far from entering into the plan of the King of Naples, who had the temerity to want to attack the Russian army, he had decided not to confront the enemy any longer, their forces being, the prince told me, double his own. At first I could not persuade myself that the intention he believed the King of Naples had was true, but soon I was certain of it. I had written to the chief of staff [Berthier] to obtain permission to go heal myself in Berlin. Instead of this permission, the Prince of Neufchâtel sent me the formal order of the King of Naples to return without delay to Elbing in order to take command there. Although decided not to accept it, I thought it my duty to depart for Elbing, especially since, besides everything that the Prince of Schwarzenberg had told me, I had collected very important information on the military operations of the Russians and on the plan they had to draw the King of Naples towards Königsberg in order to envelop him, to surprise the Viceroy in Marienwerder and take Thorn by great force, where they knew the Prince of Eckmühl [Davout]  was in no state in resist them, with the few forces left to him; finally, they counted entirely on the inaction of the Austrian corps which they wished to force, by seizing Warsaw, to throw themselves into Galicia. 

The different manner in which the three chiefs received my communications will serve to demonstrate their character and their degree of foresight. First I saw the Prince of Eckmühl in Thorn, and, although he was not happy about my departure from his corps in Moscow, he received me very well, listened to me and discussed with me the views I gave him: “They are so important,” the prince told me, “that I ask you for them in writing, and I am going to send them to the Emperor by courier. I know the King of Naples well, but I do not believe him mad enough to want to give battle.” 

The next day the marshal shut down the district where, according to what I told him, the Russians counted on attacking him, and made all the preparations for defense. He urged me to quicken my departure in order to warn the Viceroy and the King of Naples. 

The first received me the next day in Marienwerder with his usual politeness. His Highness chatted with me for a long time; he wanted to prove to me that my news had no common sense, and showed me on the map that the plan that I attributed to the Russians was inexecutable. I thanked His Highness for the honor he’d done me of inviting me to dinner, and continued my route, saying to myself: If you want to let yourself be taken, I don’t want to be part of it. It was in fact two days after this that the enemy surprised the Viceroy in Marienwerder, and this prince was on the brink of being captured. The Cossacks arrived at his court, favored by a thick fog; happily, his guard was able to take up arms in time, and the prince managed to save himself. Several generals, among others General Daendels, crossed through the gardens and didn’t even have time to take their horses. Prince Eugène had confirmed to me that the King of Naples wished to give battle, and he did not disapprove of it. 

As soon as I arrived in Elbing, I saw the King, who insisted on giving me command of a division, telling me: “I want by this method to force the Emperor to name you General of Division, I’d requested it from him for you for a long time.” This was nonsense; I knew he hadn’t done anything of the sort, and I persisted in my refusal. If in Marienwerder I had found the incredulous, it was much worse in Elbing. The King, the Prince of Neufchâtel and General Count Monthion did not even do me the honor of listening to me.  Giving battle, preparing for the battle which was to bring us back to Königsberg, that was all anyone wanted to hear about, until at last Marshal Macdonald warned the King three times that he was coming with his corps of the army, that it would be the height of madness to think of a battle, and that he, King of Naples, had not a moment to lose if he did not wish to be cut off. At the first opinion from the Duke of Taranto, the King was thrown into a holy rage; but when at last the postmaster of Elbing sent word to us that the Cossacks were already on the road from Marienbourg, that a courier had been captured, and that the coaches could no longer cross, the King decided on a hasty retreat; headquarters had the order of every-man-for-himself

The King of Naples, who during the retreat had shown a lot of energy, courage and calm, was not strong enough to bear the burden with which the Emperor had charged him. After Elbing, he no longer saw a way out, and, despairing of the reproaches he received daily from his brother-in-law about his retrograde march, fearing perhaps also, and with reason, that Napoleon would consent to the sacrifice of Naples in order to obtain peace, he abandoned the army and returned home. 

Prince Eugène succeeded him. Everyone has read the eulogy which the Emperor made of him at the expense of the King of Naples. Prince Eugène did indeed all that could be expected of his courage, his attachment, his disinterestedness and his strength; but those who knew him closely know that he has been given a somewhat exaggerated reputation, and that Voltaire’s verse can be applied to him:

Tel brille au second rang qui s’eclipse au premier. [Such shines in the second rank which is eclipsed in the first.]

Excellent for executing and directing the plans that had been drawn up for him by the Emperor, the event proved that, left to himself, he was neither a great statesman, nor a great general.[1]

[1] [Dedem’s note] The end of the campaign of 1814 furnishes proof of this. 

4 thoughts on ““It would be the height of madness”

  1. Petra

    I had read this part of Dedem’s memoirs before. Frankly, I’m a bit sceptical about its veracity.

    First of all, would Schwarzenberg really, just like that, reveal the Austrian plans to betray the French, to an officer in French service about to meet with French high command? He cannot have been that careless.

    Secondly, according to Eugène’s correspondence, Eugène writes to Auguste already on January 5 and on January 7 that he suspects the Russians will push the French beyond the Vistula soon. If Dedem’s interview with Eugène happened two days before the cossacks almost managed to capture him in Marienwerder (12 January), it must have been on January 10. Why would Eugène be so incredulous about Dedem’s report, if he himself had already voiced the same thoughts a couple of days before?

    It might pay to cross-check this with Macdonald’s memoirs and the available correspondence, if Dedem’s story even agrees with the timeline of events. I suspect that his meeting with Murat is equally dubious.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure what motive Dedem would’ve had to make this story up, but I do agree it’d be interesting to compare this with other accounts. If I find anything that corroborates or contradicts what he’s saying, I might do a follow-up post.


      1. Petra

        As to Dedem’s motive, I do not know. But I start to mistrust each and every one of these boastful military guys who had seen it all coming all that time but whose wisdom of course had been ignored by those fools in charge (guys who were writing in hindsight from a distance of five, ten or twenty years) 😁.

        As to the timeline, according to Clément, Campagne de 1813, Macdonald and what was left of his corps already had reached Königsberg on 3 January. They only met Ney there as Murat and Berthier had moved on to Marienburg, Ney then left to inform Murat. Macdonald gave up Königsberg “soon after”. On 8 January Yorck and the Prussians and Russians already occupied Königsberg (according to “Denkwürdigkeiten aus dem Befreiungskriege”). On hearing of these events, Murat ordered a general retreat to the other side of the Vistula (apparently quite without any advice from Dedem?). This ties in with what Eugène writes to Auguste on the very day he barely escapes the cossacks’ surprise attack at Marienwerder (12 January): he has already received orders to retreat beyond the Vistula and to meet Murat at Posen.

        While it is quite possible that Dedem was there and met with all these high officers, I suspect he vastly exaggerated his own importance.

        Liked by 1 person

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