Last night, at the fire with Eugenio, I asked, “Where will the battle be?” The air was anxiously quiet, – crackling fire and restless horses louder than still air.
“Here,” he said. “It cannot be here, this is too peaceful a place for so many to die,” I thought. I was wrong.
They call them small battles but I see now the method of war and am awake to the pain and embarrassed by the honor of countries who care so little for their sons that they would ever subject them to this reckless risk of death.
This action, while merely counted numbers of units to a general or king, mean the everything for the counted, their families, their children ~ they and we are all victims.
Such waste is unforgivable; a moral travesty and make mockery of our (alleged) ability to reason as civilized humans.
I fear the killing and the dying, I do not want to kill and go so far as to say I am incoherent as to why anyone would – save for the immediate attack to one’s family or self. I fear that in this expansionist campaign, we may loose our freedoms – both mentally and politically, if even are able to save our lives.
June 24, 1812 Bivouacked near the Neiman River, border of Prussia and Russia
Mon Sweet Genevieve,
At last I have a chance to drop you a note which will have a chance to find you. I am fortunate in that I am able to gain a few favors for delivery that would be unavailable to most. The news does seem to travel fast in general. Indeed, a lame horseman can travel faster than this huge mass of humanity. We have met with the rest of the Army and Napoleon himself has arrived. He ensures everyone know that he is here & here to lead. He rides the ranks as we camp making final preparations to go into Russia.
Once we cross the Neiman into Russia, I expect the day-to-day of traveling and repair- ing boots will change, I just don’t know how. Though this is the military, I don’t carry a gun despite teasing from Maurice, Eugenio and the others.
Honestly, I think they (the guns) are more for a show of power and makes them feel that they are in-stead with the other fighting men despite that we are in a non- combative role. “Self preservation,” they said, but honestly I just am not sure we would have the presence of mind to shoot another even under the direst of circumstances. Could I look in someone’s eyes as his fears flash through and pull a trigger to implant a hard orb of metal into his being with the aim of finality to his existence? But, is his life more important than my own?
In reality, I hope that I can avoid such circumstances, as well as staying out of harms way in general. I can also hope that diplomacy can carry the day and we return across this River with nary a shot fired. I cannot honestly say I expect such a simple resolu- tion. Now you’ll pardon my treasonous speech for a moment but … while fixing boots for some General of such and such, … he was discussing the Treaty at Tilsit signed by N. and Czar Alexander last year.
Of course, when France heard the news of Russia’s concessions, we thought it had been inevitable and even our privilege to bring our Empire to them by their compromise. We lauded N. as ‘great’ and ‘brilliant’ for the advantages he took. But, in listening to the General recount this event, I thought about the Russians and how such talks would strengthen their resolve to fight for pride, as it would ours if the role of his- tory were reversed.
The monarch and generals agitate one another to frenzy then, send in innocent pawns as food for a hungry bear or lion. I applaud the role of diplomacy to resolve disputes
but such negotiations must not take advantage of a simpler, or daresay less sophisti- cated thinker. If you are espousing a virtuous and honest republic where equality reigns, you must start at the highest levels.
We must espouse a virtuous republic where honesty and virtue is held higher than expansionist desires, or even the love of one’s country and the pride of culture. A republic where administrative efficiency trumps royal excess where we have both the right to own land and a responsibility to pay debts.
For my part, I attempt to undertake my daily affairs in a fair and honest manner, giving my entire effort into all I do, despite the humbleness of my tasks.
May 25, 1812 Somewhere in Poland, en route to Warsaw
Today is the third rainy day in a row & heaviest yet. You know, I tend to like the over- cast days with promise of rain and the smells that follow and even these days, I quite like the pattern & drama of nature. The troops grumble and I don’t share my comfort as unlike most, of course I ride in the wagon assigned to our small unit. In fact, as I write I ride on the front-board with Maurice who I mentioned earlier, he drives the horses and I hunker down trying to keep my notes to you dry – aside from my tears!
I am kidding somewhat, but I admit my longing to be entwined with your long white fingers, watching your tiny, almost round ears bounce as you laugh. You are to me the essence of the modern woman, free to be, strong and taken the effort to educate your- self rather than idly gossiping in salons with boorish and trite crones who act as though they alone run the Republic! But you, my sweet, not only do you thrill me with your beauty but also your humor, the way you make me laugh no matter my malaise. The way you instinctively know how to make me whole in spirit, to believe in our chances – ours and our world’s, France’s and our corner of Paris, my shop, your school, the museums, the theatres, the libraries, the cafes.
As promised – per your request – I will include more observations of the day to day routine of military life. As you know, my role is unique and my duty not typical of these men. But it being what I know – and for that matter, no one else knows my experiences – I’ll put forth a few notes to try to show you my moving world while the images are still fairly fresh ~ like blank paper.
First, I am surprised by the quick pace and progress by which we move across the countryside. The marches are long but the soldiers and the supply caravans et al seem to move as a single unit with a sort of collective consciousness moving the head. Of course, there are orders and officers and marshals directing the flow on a specific schedule, but to my vantage point, I feel the army would move on its own volition and end up in the same place at about the appointed time, without any direction. You could conjecture a comparison to water finding a mountain drainage, or the heart pumping blood, but will have such consideration to you.
Next, the sheer size of moving this many men to do battle elsewhere seems like an un- productive effort considering the expenses and effort. I can’t help but wonder how
this vast number of men will be needed for a battle and how no other option was devised of that eliminate this parade of lost potential. How could this massive swarm be put to better use building some device or method to better humankind? Do such advances in science or design of mechanism not spirit liberal reforms the way a revolution might? I think that leisure and time to learn begets the seeds of revolutionary thought. The method of the revolutionary action however, must be chosen with a sense of what is best for a greater number of people. With this in mind, we should seek to enter as friends if we hope to benefit from the great cost of lives already expended.
This leads to a third brief topic of the wisdom of the blockades of British goods at ports in the greater French Empire. Any parent will tell you that as soon as you in- struct a child not to do something, immediately they wonder how they might do this condemned action. When ports are closed, several things occur, … 1) a black-market develops for English goods whether brought in English boats in quasi-secrecy on ex- changed offshore on local ships, and 2) the closer of the ports (N. in this case) leaves a gaping hole in which his resolve & power can be tested. The moral sentiment can erode & change flow quickly when people are denied items to which they are accustomed or are denied the freedom to exchange their labor (in form of goods) which whom they choose.
The point I don’t mention is the boost to the sanctioned economy, providers in France and its environs may well sell an increase in demand. But this is a panacea and as artificial supported, will collapse. To close my observations, I suggest that open trade in goods results in increased knowledge, understanding, communication & trade, ultimately resulting in (hopefully) peaceful progressive reform.
April 25, 1812 Somewhere in Austria, en route to Prussia
My Sweet Genevieve,
When the corporal told me of a letter from Paris, I was overjoyed! Ah, to read the first words from you since that morning which now seems so long ago. I remember you in daisy yellow dress blowing me kisses all way until disappeared. Me standing atop the carriage ‘til you faded from view.
Now I see you in my dreams and in my waking hours, chestnuts the color of your hair, the deep endless lake blues of your eyes, you pouting lips breaking easily into laughter. Oh for those days to come again – and soon! Our love will snap us together over so many muddy miles. I, if you’ll allow me, must admit that I value you as a friend as much as a woman, my lover, my wife to-be, you are my confidant, my gentle lover & rambunctious friend. You are my comforting presence and make me feel loved and mighty. You, the memory of you, the dreams of you – remembering you each time I smell fresh lemons or see the daffodils growing by each stream we cross. You offer me reason to come home, you are my source of hope in those tumultuous times.
Oh, but life is not so bad as we travel. I ride in the wagon with Maurice and Eugenio. We know we are fortunate and work hard, even en route. The wagon has heavy cloth sides & canopy to protect our supplies and we often stop away from most of the other troops so to enjoy the countryside. I’ve taken to sketching and using E.’s watercolors. He paints in oils but allows me to watch him with my good natured (I hope) ramblings. I’ll enclose a few of my attempts to give you a sense of the local environs.
We move quickly through villages of only a few shops and houses, across fields of wheat with farmers looking much the same as home. A couple of oxen, a small barn, chickens vegetables. They look on ~ deciding how to feel, it seems. Their home and environs are important to them, no matter who sits in power. It their surroundings and ‘home’, more than ‘homeland’ or king, they would fight for. Let us hope that they are allowed in peace. We should all be so lucky – all of us I mean – to have a piece of land that we reap the whole of our labors from. Free to exchange our efforts for a result of our choice without encumbrance or malice. I hope this is what our revolution brings to Russia.
We are on the move now, a tremendous length of soldiers on foot, trudging with their packs and sleek polished weapons. Other plumed in comical hats, proud on horses that seem indifferent to the rank of their riders and more impressed with their importance.
Since my letter last, the camp became a flurry of activity as we readied to move through Austria quickly on into Prussia, Poland, then Russia who continue to allow British ships into port despite N.’s blockade.
Austria, now defeated again will march along with us, with the Italians, Dutch, Polish and more forces from twenty European countries unified under France. I wonder how they feel about their conscription by an enemy. But, such things are not discussed, dis- sent is grounds for persecution and ridicule ~ my aim is to avoid both and thus, consider my thoughts alone.
My hope is N. will not drag this campaign deep into Russia for my own selfish reasons, that of keeping me far away from your slender, giving arms for any longer than absolutely needed for the great of the Republic. It is you that is important to me!
Again, I spent all day gazing at clouds while I wandered the camp, thinking of you and us. Remembering long lunches in second-story cafes, peeking below at passers-by, guessing the stories, Where they are going? What do they do? Their secrets, or their names.
Thinking of our future, perhaps a small country house where you’ll teach at a school & I’ll go bald & tend to radishes. Or maybe I will grow my shop and train apprentices, but honestly, I am not sure I want to force a profession on someone unless it is what they want to do. Rather I want to be the one who encourages others to find their es- sential nature, to explore their desires and predilections without shame. Honestly to make their way in the world without hindrance, fear or influence from Church or State.
Being from a merchant family, I am awkwardly struck between the so-called nobles, clergy and other suckling wastefully from the labors of others, – and those others being the peasants reduced to shame by the “sin-king” who shone nothing but scorn for those who produced the wealth of France. But neither class care for the trader and crafters, both fearing and envying our limited political influence. No matter, such a world is not mine to decide.
Though I have endless choices before me, I know only one choice to make and that is you. You Genevieve, you are the joy that sustains me, the antidote for the venom of fear.
With the vigor of our love, I will keep safe in my tasks so as to return to you whole.
I have only been gone for less than two weeks but already I miss you more than I thought I would after many long months! We can only hope my duty goes quickly so to return to you soon. For this, we’ll trust Napoleon’s judgement.
After the hurried wagon trip, I’ve met up with my unit in a beautiful part of Austria. I’ve attempted a sketch to give you a sense of place. With the high mountain altitude come waves of late blooming wildflowers of every lavender and purple, gold, orange & the lovely blue of your eyes – glowing like patina on copper. Soaring peaks frosted with the immaculate sheen of ice.
As it is, there is little evidence of recent or impending war. The towns are lively and efficient and the people cordial considering the manner in which the French arrived! At the camp, there is a methodically, tense routine of preparing equipment & provisions of all manner. You know I do not fit well into routine and early mornings but I will make do.
As for my unit, I’ll be traveling with a supply wagon along with a few others, a tailor Maurice; he tends to all uniforms for officers, both mending and outfitting. He somehow doesn’t look the part – stout and chubby-fingered. He has a cynical wit and an easy wink. He remembers names and tells stories about fishing in rowboats with his uncle, a preacher in Arles. Besides M. is Eugenio, wiry and always smoking. He is also older than most everyone I’ve seen in camp and turns out he fought with Italy against Napoleon but now is conscripted as a painter, obliged to produce portraits of corpulent generals and grand scenes of battle. He knows well the history of the each campaign and seems unimpressed by the eager anticipation of orders.
Everyone assumes we are soon bound for Russia, combining with the northern troops to form one Grand Army. This alone should be enough for Russia’s Czar Alexander to come to terms – ending this campaign and sending me back to your arms in just a few months of spring and summer. Even if we move into Russia, we will surely be returning well before winter.
Such a schedule will give me time to open up a cobbler shop of my own and marry you next Spring. I am glad we told your parents of our plans before I left – though they weren’t as surprised as we thought! (Of course send my regards and best wishes to them.) But for now, I am bound by the wishes of Napoleon through the orders written for the day. The soldiers never question and maintain a sense of urgency to seize their place history. This is Napoleon’s skill, a genius ability to motivate the troops with promises of glory, the causes of the revolution, importance of spreading French culture and our civil code throughout a united Europe.
I must admit some reservations about the need of bringing Russia into our Grand Republic but I will leave such decisions to more seasoned minds. I can only trust the motives are not driven by ego. We can only hope for sound judgement and that the state does not exceed the bounds of what can be expected from a citizen.
You and I (and so many others) will be the harvesters of the rich new, country. Rich in spirit, filled with light and truth.
I am eager to live in this France – a France as ideal as we believe it can be – where the unjustness of class and privilege at birth is eradicated. Where fair courts and laws bring sense and equality from the arbitrary whims of unfit monarchs. A country where virtue is celebrated and honesty replaces corruption. Please know that when I return, you, your family and our community will know I did my part to build this Republic – for us and our children and grandchildren.
What follows is a collection of letters written by Henri LaFleur – a cobbler in the French army during the Russian campaign of 1812 – to Genevieve Vaschon, his fiancé in Paris.
Henri’s fourteen letters offer his observations on the physiology of war, as well as dis- course and personal sentiments on love, war, society, politics, and meaning of self. The accompanying landscapes give a sense of his search for solace and release in the sur- rounding chaos of war.
The letters were sent over an eight-month period beginning in Austria and moving through Prussia, Poland and into Russia. First with battles in Smolensk and Borodino, then fires and pillaging in Moscow, and finally the well-documented November re- treat.
The final letter in the correspondence was sent on retreat near the Berezin Bridge at which location during three days, much of the remaining French army perished into the icy river while attempting crossings of the bridge. Others were stranded in on the Russian side with the pursuing Cossack troops when the retreating French army destroyed the bridge behind them.
As it were … the collection of letters, along with a variety of sketches and paintings, was found bound and stored in an attic trunk, as per Henri’s written request before leaving Moscow. There is no further verifiable historical information to confirm Henri’s return home though regional folklore contends that he indeed survived and lived a long life in a small village near the sea with his dear Genevieve.
Dave Olson Summer 2004 Lake Crescent, Washington & Manzanita, Oregon