Monthly Archives: June 2012

Why Napoleon Invaded Russia in 1812

This post follows on from this one on the military aspects of the actual invasion.

Russia and France were allied in 1807 by the Treaties of Tilsit, which also involved Prussia. Tsar Alexander I of Russia agreed to comply with the Continental System, Napoleon’s attempt to wage economic war on Britain. Alexander supported Napoleon when he went to war with Austria in 1809, sending an army to threaten Austria’s eastern frontier. His foreign minister, Nikolay Rumiantsev, thought that the alliance was in Russia’s interests.

Charles Esdaile argues that Napoleon damaged Franco-Russian relations by making too many demands of his ally. He wanted Russia to send troops to the West, and away from Serbia and the Danube, where Russia was fighting the latest in a long series of wars with the Ottoman Empire. Napoleon ignored Russia’s interests and left Alexander feeling that he was regarded as the junior partner in the Alliance.[1]

The Poles under Marshal Joseph Poniatowski, unlike the Russians, gave great support to Napoleon in 1809. Poland had been first weakened and then destroyed after its territories were partitioned by Austria, Prussia and Russia in 1772, 1793 and 1796. The Treaty of Tilsit between France and Prussia in 1807 had established the Grand Duchy of Warsaw as a French satellite; it consisted of most of the former parts of Poland annexed by Prussia. In 1809 it was expanded by the addition of territory taken over by Austria.

Alexander, wanting to retain the lands that Russia had acquired when Poland was partitioned, saw the growth of the Duchy of Warsaw as a threat. It was not called Poland but used Polish symbols and the Polish language. He tried to negotiate a treaty under which Austria, France and Russia guaranteed the Duchy’s current borders and agreed that it could not call itself a kingdom. Napoleon refused to sign on the grounds that this meant that the actions of another state could force France into a war. Esdaile points out that, whilst this was true, Napoleon’s real motivation was to allow himself freedom of action in Eastern Europe.[2]

Many Russian were also concerned by King Charles XIII of Sweden’s adoption of Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, one of Napoleon’s marshals, as his son and heir in May 1810. The Russo-Swedish War of 1808-9 resulted in Sweden losing Finland to Russia. King Gustavus IV, who was considered to be insane, was deposed and replaced by Charles, who was childless and in poor health. Sweden still controlled over half the Baltic coast, including Pomerania, and many Russians feared that Napoleon was trying to encircle Russia.

In fact, although Bernadotte had served with Napoleon for many years and he and Joseph Bonaparte were married to sisters, he was not close to the Emperor. Bernadotte was jealous of Napoleon’s success, whilst the Emperor had been angered by Bernadotte’s failure to move his corps to the action at the Battle of Jena-Auerstadt and by his attempt to claim credit for the victory at Wagram. According to Zamoyski, Napoleon once said that he would have had Bernadotte shot three times had they not been related by marriage.[3]

A further source of dispute was Napoleon’s desire for an heir. He and the Empress Josephine had failed to have children. Since she had a son and a daughter by her previous marriage, it appeared that this was the fault of the Emperor until he had a son by Maria Walewska, his mistress. Determined to produce a legitimate heir, he decided to divorce the 46-year-old Josephine and marry a younger and royal woman.

Napoleon’s first choice was Alexander’s teenage sister, Grand Duchess Anna. Their mother, the Dowager Empress, opposed the intended marriage, as did many leading nobles, who did not want to strengthen ties with France. Alexander was not keen and in February 1810 asked for a two-year postponement because Anna was too young. Napoleon immediately turned his attentions to the Archduchess Marie-Louise, daughter of the Austrian Emperor France I, marrying her on 1 April 1812.

Napoleon managed to offend both the Russians by his quick change of target, and the Austrians by the speed and lack of courtesy with which he pursued Marie-Louise. According to both Esdaile and Zamoyski, he was not playing a double game; Anna was his first choice, but he wanted to marry a young princess and father an heir as soon as possible. There were some complaints in France about Napoleon breaking his ties to the Revolution by marrying an Austrian archduchess, but this had little political impact.[4]

One strong reason for Russian anger with France was the impact of the Continental System. Russia had little industry and had to import many manufactured goods. Alexander wanted to expand Russian trade, but exports fell by 40 per cent in 1806-12, customs revenue from 9 million roubles in 1805 to under 3 million in 1808, the paper currency halved in value in 1808-11 and prices of coffee and sugar rose by as much as five times in 1802-11.[5]

Alexander did not leave the Continental System, but he ceased to enforce it. In December 1810 he opened Russian ports to US ships and made tariffs on imports by land, such as French goods, much higher than those on goods, mostly British, coming by sea.

Also in December 1810, Napoleon annexed the free ports of Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck in order to give him greater control over imports into Europe. The next month he took over the Duchy of Oldenburg. Its ruler, Grand Duke Peter, was Alexander’s uncle, and Peter’s heir was married to one of Alexander’s sisters, Grand Duchess Catherine.

By 1811, Alexander was preparing for war with France. He offered to restore the Kingdom of Poland, but the Poles did not want a war that would take place mainly on their territory, and many of them preferred Napoleon to Alexander. Attempts to sign military alliances with Austria, Prussia and Sweden failed. Alexander decided that Russia would not start a war with France.

It was Napoleon who decided to go to war. The best explanation for the reason why is that given by Charles Esdaile:

‘One is left, then, with one explanation, and one explanation alone: frustrated by the long war in Spain and Portugal, and the failure of the Continental Blockade to bring the British to heel, Napoleon was simply bent on flexing his military muscle and winning fresh glory’[6]


[1] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), pp. 401-4.

[2] Ibid., pp. 406-7.

[3] A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 66.

[4] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, pp. 408-10; Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 56-57.

[5] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 414.

[6] Ibid., p. 458.

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June 1812 – Napoleon Invades Russia

In June 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia. On 22 June, 139 years to the day before Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, he issued a proclamation to his soldiers, telling them that ‘The second Polish war has opened; the first ended at Friedland and Tilsit.’[1] Europe, apart from the Iberian Peninsula, had been at peace since 1809. See this post for the situation in the  Napoleonic War in June 1812.

On 22 June Napoleon’s Polish lancers reconnoitred the west bank of the River Niemen for any sign of Russian troops on the far bank. At night Napoleon, wearing a Polish uniform, personally led a small party across the river, looking for the best place to cross. He was thrown from his horse after a hare caused it to shy.

Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier, his chief of staff,  told General Armand Caulaincourt, formerly Napoleon’s ambassador to Tsar Alexander I, that ‘We would do well not to cross the Niemen. This was a bad omen.’ Caulaincourt, who had advised Napoleon against attacking Russia, commented that the Emperor ‘remained very serious and preoccupied for the rest of the day.’[2]

The rest of 23 June was taken up with preparations for the crossing. Light infantry crossed by boat at 10 pm in order to screen the construction of three pontoon bridges by engineers. They were briefly fired on by a Russian cavalry patrol, but this was the only resistance offered to the crossing; the Russian army had withdrawn. The bridges were completed  by dawn and the Grande Armée crossed on 24 and 25 July.

The Grande Armée was a huge, multi-national force. David Chandler puts its strength at 614,000, including 302,000 Frenchmen, 190,000 from Austria, Prussia, Switzerland and other German states, and 90,000 Poles and Lithuanians. The remaining 32,000 were Italians, Illyrians, Spaniards and Portuguese.  The enthusiasm of many, other than the French and the Poles, was questionable.

Three armies, totalling 449,000 men formed the main invasion force. The other 165,000 men were intended mainly to provide replacements. Napoleon had previously commanded armies of no more than 200,000 men.

He had 1,422 cannons, pulled by 30,000 horse, and 80,000 cavalry. The supply train included 25,000 vehicles and a further 90,000 animals. Supplying such a large army was a major problem, and Napoleon timed the invasion for the point at which the grass crops would provide the most animal feed. [3]

The invading force heavily outnumbered the Russian forces facing it. Chandler says that the Russian Army had 409,000 soldiers in early 1812, of whom 211,000 were in front-line armies, 45,000 in the second line and 153,000 in garrisons and reserve units. By June 1812, transfers from the quiet Turkish and Persian fronts and from garrisons and reserves had allowed the formation of three Russian field armies in the west with 218,000 men by June 1812.[4]

Napoleon had, by invading Russia, launched an enormous enterprise. Charles Esdaile notes that the ‘”The great proof of madness”, Napoleon is once supposed to have said, “is the disproportion of one’s designs to one’s means.” If so, then the Emperor stands condemned from his own mouth.’[5]

The next post in this series will consider the reasons why Napoleon decided to invade Russia, which had been his ally since the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807.


[1] Quoted in D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 739.

[2] Both quoted in A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), pp. 146-47.

[3] Figures in this and the two previous paragraphs are from Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, pp. 753-59.

[4] Ibid., pp. 750, 764.

[5] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 401.

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United States Declares War on Britain – in 1812

On 18 June 1812 US President James Madison signed a declaration of war on Britain. Madison had made a speech to Congress on 1 June, listing a series of American objections to British policy. This was followed by votes for war of 79 to 49 in the House of Representatives and 19 to 13 in the Senate.

The Americans had grievances against Britain because of the impact of Britain’s economic warfare against France on American commerce and because the Royal Navy impressed [often shortened to press] US sailors into service. Under British law, the RN was entitle to impress , or conscript, British merchant sailors. These included men who it considered to be British, but who were US citizens in American eyes.

According to N. A. M. Rodger, the problem was that most countries then defined nationality by birth, but the USA allowed it to be earned by residence. He notes that Albert Gallatin, the US Treasury Secretary, estimated that half of the 18,000 seamen serving on the deep sea US merchant fleet were British subjects. The US government did not issue official documents of citizenship. US Consuls issued unofficial ones, but they had to depend on a man’s word that he was a US citizens, and there was scope for corruption. This gave the British, short of seamen, an excuse to ignore these documents. Rodger says that recent research shows that about 6,500 US citizens were pressed into the RN, with around 3,800 of them being released. Older sources give higher numbers.[1]

France had introduced  the Continental System in November 1806, banning its allies and conquests from trading with Britain. The flaw in this strategy was that Britain controlled the seas, so British goods could be smuggled onto the Continent. Britain responded with Orders in Council in 1807, which imposed a blockade on France. Click here for copies of the documents that established these two systems.

Ironically, the British government under Lord Liverpool abolished the Orders in Council on 23 June 1812. Because of the slow speed of communication, it did not know that the USA had declared war on Britain five days earlier. Liverpool had become Prime Minister after the assassination of Spencer Perceval a month previously.

Charles Esdaile says that US exports declined by 40% between 1808 and 1812. This reduced the prices of cotton, tobacco and land. The USA had fought the undeclared Quasi-War at sea with France in 1798-1800 over the actions of French privateers. Problems returned under Napoleon’s rule, but British control of the seas meant that the British Orders in Council had far more impact on the USA than the French Continental System.

In 1807, the Americans attempted to retaliate with a trade embargo on Britain. This was replaced in 1809 with a Non-Intercourse Act that effectively allowed trade with Britain and France via third parties. Thomas Jefferson, Madison’s predecessor as President, had hoped to force British concessions by economic means. The failure of this policy led to the election of many proponents of war to Congress in 1811.

As well as the US grievances with Britain, many wanted to expand into Canada, Florida, which was controlled by Britain’s ally Spain and the Indian territories to the West. Tecumseh, the American Indian leader, was allied to Britain.

The US Army had fallen to 3,000 men in 1807, but 13 new regiments were authorised in January 1812, along with 12 ships of the line and 24 frigates for the USN. In February, State militias of 50,000 men were authorised; the number was increased to 100,000 in April. However, the US Army still had, according to Esdaile, only 7,000 men at the outbreak of war. [2]

Britain was now at war with France and the USA, but the two wars were separate conflicts. The only impact of each on the other was that British soldiers and ships could be in only one place at a time.

Russell Weigley points out that there were just 7,000 British and Canadian regulars guarding a 900 mile frontier. Reinforcements could not be sent because the Peninsular War with Napoleon was more important to Britain. The USN had only 16 ships, excluding gunboats. US defence against seaborne invasion depended on harbour fortifications and gunboats. The RN had over 600 warships, including 120 ships of the line and 100 frigates, in 1812. Around 100 were in the western Atlantic, but only one ship of the line and seven frigates were in US  .[3]


[1] N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2004), pp. 565-66 and note 9 on p. 743.

[2] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), pp. 480-85.

[3] R. F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (New York: Macmillan, 1973), p. 46-49.

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The Fall of Singapore – The Great Betrayal – BBC2

BBC2 recently broadcast a documentary titled The Fall of Singapore – The Great Betrayal. The synopsis from the BBC’s website says that:

Pearl Harbor and the Fall of Singapore: 70 years ago these huge military disasters shook both Britain and America, but they conceal a secret so shocking it has remained hidden ever since. This landmark film by Paul Elston tells the incredible story of how it was the British who gave the Japanese the knowhow to take out Pearl Harbor and capture Singapore. For 19 years before the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, British officers were spying for Japan. Worse still, the Japanese had infiltrated the very heart of the British establishment – through a mole who was a peer of the realm known to Churchill himself.

The main contributors to the programme were Prof. Richard Aldrich of Warwick University, a leading historian of the British intelligence services, and Dr Antony Best of the LSE, an expert on Anglo-Japanese relations. Many of the assertions made were justified by reference to primary documents in the UK National Archives.

At the end of the First World War, the Royal Navy led the world in naval aviation. Japan, which was then allied to Britain, attempted to obtain details of Britain’s new aircraft carriers. Ten requests for information were rejected, but Japan was allowed to recruit a civilian mission.

It was composed of former members of the Royal Naval Air Service, which had merged with the Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force in April 1918. The mission was led by an experienced naval aviator, William Forbes-Sempill, the Master of Sempill and the son of a Scottish peer. It was in Japan during 1921-23.

The programme argued that the British mission allowed Japan to develop the naval aviation that enabled it to attack Pearl Harbor and to sink Force Z, composed of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, off Malaya in December 1941. This is perhaps going too far; Stephen Roskill contended in his history of the RN between the wars that the Japanese would have caught up with the RN and USN eventually, but that the Sempill mission speeded up the process.[1]

The programme suggested that the Japanese needed British help in order to develop naval aviation. They were behind Britain and the USA, but not by as much as the programme suggested. The first deck landing on an aircraft carrier was on HMS Furious on 3 August 1917, which then had a short flight deck forward of her superstructure.

The first carrier with a full length deck was HMS Argus, which was converted from an incomplete liner and completed in September 1918. Britain began construction of the HMS Hermes, the world’s first purpose built carrier, on 15 January 1918. She was launched on 11 September 1919 but not completed until February 1924.

Japan, meanwhile, laid down its first carrier, IMS Hosho, on 16 December 1919. She was launched on 13 November 1921 and completed on 27 December 1922. The first take off from and landing on her deck took place on 22 February 1923. The first landing on a carrier that was underway was on the USS Langley in November 1922. Conversion of the Langley, the USN’s first carrier, from a collier had been completed on 20 March 1922.

The claim made by the programme that the Japanese needed British help to build a carrier would seem to be an exaggeration, since the Hosho was under construction before the Sempill Mission arrived in Japan, but the mission clearly helped the Japanese to develop carrier aviation quicker than they could have managed if starting from scratch.

The second in command of the base from which the mission operated was Yamamoto Isoruku, in 1941 commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet and mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor. By 1941 the IJN was well ahead of the RN and at least equal to the USN in carrier aviation, so the Japanese had taken the initial lessons taught to them by the Sempill Mission and built on them by their own efforts. One of Britain’s problems was that most of its naval aviators transferred to the RAF in 1918, so it had few senior officers with air experience in 1939.

Another former RNAS pilot, Frederick Rutland, was recruited by the Mitsubishi company and taught the Japanese deck landing techniques. He was the son of a labourer and was promoted from the ranks. He was known as Rutland of Jutland because he carried out a reconnaissance mission at the Battle of Jutland.

At this stage, Sempill and Rutland had provided an ally with information as part of officially sanctioned missions. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was ended by the treaties signed at the 1921-22 Washington Naval Conference and the two countries became potential foes. Despite this, Sempill continued to supply information to Japan. He had asecret job that seemed to make him an international arms salesman for Britain. This gave him access to secret information and brought him into contact with foreign navies and air forces, including those of Chile, Brazil and Greece.

MI5 became suspicious of Sempill’s links with Japan and tapped his phone and intercepted his mail. This provided evidence that he was supplying Japan with secret information. Britain had broken some Japanese codes and intercepted Japanese diplomatic cables relaying some of these from London to Tokyo.

In 1926, Sempill visited the Blackburn aircraft factory, ostensibly to inspect a new single-seater aircraft. He managed to obtain plans of the top secret Blackburn Iris flying boat. Soon after this, he was interviewed by the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, the Director of Public Prosecutions and a senior MI5 officer.

A meeting chaired by Sir Austen Chamberlain, the Foreign Secretary, decided not to prosecute Sempill. His position in society would make this embarrassing, but there was also the perennial problem with espionage cases that it would be hard to convict without revealing secrets, including the fact that Britain had broken Japanese codes. The relevant files are now publicly available in the National Archives, but were kept secret for many years.

There are no MI5 files on Sempill from the 1930s in the National Archives. One from the 1940s states that he was a paid consultant for Mitsubishi in 1931. He needed the money as he was overdrawn by £13,000; nearly £750,00o in 2012 terms.

During the 1930s Sempill became President of the Royal Aeronautical Society and succeeded his father as Lord Sempill, sitting in the House of Lords as a Conservative. He was a member of The Link, an organisation established in 1937 to promote Anglo-German friendship, and The Right Club, which aimed to rid the Conservative Party of Jewish influence.

Whether or not Sempill was involved, Japanese espionage against Britain continued during the 1930s. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria. This raised fears of an Angl0-Japanese war, and Britain re-started work on a large naval base at Singapore. The programme suggested that construction began in 1931; in fact, building started in 1923 but was suspended more than once during the 1920s due to changes in government and budgetary constraints.

During the 1930s Japanese businessmen bought up large amounts of property in Malaya. The programme argued that many of them were spies. Japan bought the plans for the Singapore base from a British serviceman called Roberts.

The Singapore base was heavily defended against attack from the sea. The British thought that it would be impossible to invade Malaya and then attack Singapore by land. In 1937 Joe Vinden (spelling?), a British Army intelligence officer, reconnoitred the Malayan coast and concluded that an invasion of Malaya followed by a land attack on Singapore was feasible.

Vinden correctly forecast that the Japanese would land at Kota Bharu in north-east Malaya during the November-February monsoon season; others thought that an amphibious landing at that time of year was impossible. His recommendation that funds allocated to coastal artillery be instead spent on aircraft was ignored.

Japan also had spies in Hawaii, one of whom was Rutland. He later told interrogators that he was ordered to report on the attitude of the population to the possibility of war and on the dispositions of the US fleet. The FBI soon became suspicious of his activities.

Sempill was brought back to the Admiralty when Winston Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, the cabinet minister responsible for the navy, on the outbreak of war in 1939. Sempill gave an assurance that he would not discuss service matters with the Japanese. However, in August 1941 he intervened to secure the release of Satoru Makahara, manager of Mitsubishi’s London office, who had been arrested on suspicion of espionage.

At the same time Churchill and US President Roosevelt held secret talks at Placentia Bay. Shortly afterwards the British code breakers at Bletchley Park intercepted and decoded a signal from the Japanese Embassy in London to Tokyo that gave precise details of the talks. A report that was sent to Churchill about the intercept remained secret for 60 years; he noted that the Japanese version was ‘pretty accurate stuff.’ It had to have come from somebody close to him.

Richard Aldrich said that the most important Japanese source with access to Churchill was Sempill. A few days later MI5 told Churchill that the Japanese had information about his inner circle. He demanded proof and a month long surveillance operation produced the names of Sempill and Commander McGrath, who had been with Sempill in Japan.

Churchill stated that Sempill could not remain at the Admiralty. When Sempill was asked to resign his commission, however, Churchill said that he only wanted Sempill to leave his current job, not the RN. Antony Best pointed Sempill was a Conservative peer who would have had friends in the Conservative Party. Richard Aldrich argued that interning Sempill would look very bad for the government, which had employed him even though he had been under MI5 surveillance since 1925.

Rutland was deported to Britain by the Americans and interned. He was released near the end of the war and later committed suicide. Sempill was given a choice of either resigning his commission or taking up a post in northern Scotland; the programme did not make it clear that which he chose. He died in 1965.

It was argued that Sempill was not charged under the Official Secrets Act or interned under Defence Regulation 18B because he was a well connected aristocrat and his arrest would embarrass the government. Other members of the upper classes were interned, including Sir Oswald Moseley, founder of the British Union of Fascists and his wife Diana, one of the Mitford sisters, Admiral Sir Barry Domvile and Archibald Maule Ramsay, the Conservative MP who founded The Right Club.

However, none of them had held any government position during the war, whilst Sempill was close to the Prime Minister. This would suggest that embarrassment to the government in general and Churchill in particular for appointing a man previously suspected of supplying secrets to Japan to a sensitive post was a stronger reason for not taking action against him than his social position.

Another reason might be that a trial could have revealed that the British had broken Japanese codes. The programme mentioned this when discussing why he was not charged in 1925, but did not repeat the point when discussing his lack of punishment in 1941.

This was a very interesting programme. It should be noted that it was not as new a revelation as the BBC claimed. The relevant documents were released to public view at the National Archives in 1998, and The Independent newspaper reported on them, quoting Richard Aldrich. Nevertheless, the programme was well made, justified its claims with reference to primary documents and brought the story to a wider audience.


[1] Stephen Roskill, Naval Policy Between the Wars, vol. i (London: Collin, 1968), p. 529.

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Europeana – Digitised European Cultural Collections

Europeana is a website that provides access to millions of books, paintings, films, museum objects and archival records that have been digitised throughout Europe.

It includes a number of specific exhibitions. Two of these are about wars; the First World War and the Napoleonic War.

Untold Stories of the First World War contains photos, sound recordings, postcards, official documents and diaries; the last named are very big files. Most items relate to ordinary people, but there is a postcard sent by Adolf Hitler. It can best be explored from this link.

More items are being collected, and a series of First World War family history roadshows are being held across Europe.  Click here for more information on roadshows and on how to contribute.

The Napoleonic War exhibition is hosted in conjunction with the European Library Exhibitions. It contains paintings, both battle scenes and portraits, maps and documents.

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