On This Day in Napoleonic History – 18 December 1812

Napoleon arrives at the Tuileries Palace after the fiasco of his Russian campaign

When the Emperor told his marshals he was leaving the army to return to Paris, he presented his decision as absolutely unavoidable. It had to be done ‘if I am to overhaul Europe and tell her to choose between war and peace.’ He appointed Marshal Murat as the overall commander of the army. Flamboyant Murat failed to hold the line of the Vistula after Napoleon left, and soon abandoned the command to Eugène, leaving for Naples to try and save his throne. Napoleon was furious. He told Eugène, ‘It would take very little for me to have him arrested by way of an example. He’s a brave man on the field of battle but he is totally devoid of intelligence and courage.’

Napoleon was right to return to Paris as quickly as possible. ‘French are like women, you can’t stay away from them for too long,’ he said to his master of the horse, Armand-Augustin-Louis de Caulaincourt. What was left of the Grande Armée was only two days march away from Vilnius and in relative safety. Napoleon was needed in Paris to try and mitigate the disastrous effect that the news of his defeat would have on the French, his allies and his enemies. Napoleon summed up his Russian campaign perfectly when he told Dominique-Georges-Frédéric Dufour de Pradt, his ambassador in Warsaw, ‘There is but a step from the sublime to the ridiculous.’

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