The Lesson of Soissons
Georg Brandes (1842-1927) was a Danish critic and literary scholar, and a salient public intellectual at the start of the century. This remarkable essay is embedded in his 1906 book, On Reading.
After the battle of Leipzig, Napoleon's position was as follows: He had from sixty to seventy thousand men under arms, exhausted, broken-down troops, the majority of them mere children. Opposed to them were three hundred thousand men, hardy and victorious soldiers. His generals were marching into France in disorder. What did Napoleon do? He hastened wherever the danger was greatest, reassured his troops, hurled them against the invading enemy, won a victory at Brienne, at La Rothiere, one to four, sometimes one to five. He dared not assume the offensive against such superior numbers, but, like a beast of prey, crouching ready to spring, he awaited some favorable chance, some mistake, which he was convinced the enemy would yet commit.
The mistake was made; Blücher and Schwarzenberg advanced separately. Napoleon flung himself upon Blücher, defeated him four days in succession, next fell upon Schwarzenberg, put him to flight, rejected offers of peace because the enemy would not concede France her natural boundaries, and hastened after Blücher again, to crush him completely and re-establish his own power.
Then suddenly everything changed. The little fortress of Soissons, which prevented Blücher and Schwarzenberg from combining their forces afresh, surrendered at the decisive moment. "Blucher's defeat," says Thiers, "was as certain as anything in a war can be. For the first time in this campaign not only the strategic, but also the numerical superiority, was on Napoleon's side. . . . What was it that could thus overthrow circumstances and fortune? A weak man, one who without being either a traitor or a coward, or even a poor officer, allowed himself to be terrified by the enemy's threats. Thus was consummated the most baleful event in our history, next to that which occurred the following year between Wavre and Waterloo."
Read the story in the best modern presentment of it, Henri Houssaye's book, "1814."
The fortress of Soissons had always been regarded as an important strategic point. But before 1814 no one had thought of putting it in a state of defence. Who would think of an invasion of France! The outworks were in ruins. Repairs were set on foot, and the command given over to Governor-General Moreau, no relation of the celebrated Moreau. The garrison consisted of a handful of men, seven hundred Poles, broken-hearted because they saw their country's cause lost, but nevertheless unswervingly attached to Napoleon, one hundred and forty gunners of the Old Guard, and eighty cavalry. The place was equipped with twenty light cannon.
There were therefore in all between nine hundred and one thousand men. Outside the fortress stood fifty thousand men, the Russians under Winzingenrode, the Prussians under Blücher, and an artillery corps with forty heavy cannon. The cannonade began on March 2, at 11 o'clock in the morning. By 12 o'clock the gun-carriages had been shot away from several of the fortress cannon, and a number of the men disabled. At 3 o'clock the Russian column made an assault. It was repulsed by three hundred Poles under Colonel Koszynski. That day the little garrison had twenty-three killed and one hundred and twenty-three wounded.
In the meantime the two allied generals could hear a steady cannonade in the direction of Quercq, and were growing uneasy. After twelve hours' bombardment they had still been unable to make a breach. It might possibly require twelve or even thirty-six hours yet, and they had not the time to spare. They were only a day's march in front of Napoleon, and he was following at their heels.
Blücher sent Captain Mertens to parley. Moreau, when he found that Mertens had come to talk of the surrender of the fortress, broke off the discussion; yet, instead of dismissing the captain without more ado, took occasion to mention that he could not enter into oral proposals with an officer who had not brought written authority with him. An hour later Mertens was in the town again with a letter. An energetic commandant would not have received the man with a flag of truce a second time. The condition of the fortress was not desperate. Moreau could have taken advantage of the night to repair the damage he had sustained.
Mertens, however, like a clever diplomatist, exhausted himself in compliments upon the courage of the garrison and the Governor, reminded Moreau of the inadequacy of his own troops and of the strength of the allies, fifty to one. It was a great responsibility, for the sake of a useless resistance, he argued, to expose the town to being taken by storm, and as a result pillaged and burnt. Moreau replied with the sentiment that he would let himself be buried under the ruins of his walls. But Mertens, who read his uncertainty, did not allow himself to be overawed, and represented to him that after honorable capitulation he would be at liberty to join the imperial army.
He appealed to the weak man's sense of duty by saying that in one or two, or three days at most, Soissons would be compelled to surrender in any case; that those of the soldiers who survived the assault would then become prisoners of war, and the inhabitants of the town would be exposed to the horrors of pillage, whereas now the garrison might march out free.
Nothing more was required of Moreau than to obey his original orders. The regulations read: "Make use of every means of defence, be deaf to intelligence communicated by the enemy, and be as proof against his whispers as against his attacks." And further: "The Governor of a fortress must remember that he is defending one of the bulwarks of the Empire, and that his surrender one single day sooner than necessary may be attended with the most important consequences to the defence of the state and the safety of the army."
Moreau had several times shown himself a brave man. Without proof of courage indeed men did not attain to the rank of general under Napoleon. But he was not heroical, and doubtless he regarded the Emperor's cause as lost, as did most of the generals. He did not wish to sacrifice himself needlessly.
He summoned a council of war, at which it was shown that there were still three thousand gun-charges left and two hundred thousand cartridges. In spite of some division of opinion, the desire to continue the defence triumphed. Scarcely, however, had the council dispersed before another officer under a flag of truce arrived with a letter, in which the words "assault," "pillage," and "hew down " occurred with disquieting and terrifying effect. A fresh council of war met, and yielded; the Polish colonel was the only one who advocated resistance, but being a foreigner he had no vote.
Moreau then took the truce-maker aside, and agreed to the capitulation, on condition that the town should have no contribution levied upon it, and that the garrison should be allowed to march out with its arms and baggage. The enemy agreed. The Governor's orders, however, had been: "When the council has been heard, the Governor of a fortress must decide alone and on his own responsibility. He must follow the firmest and most intrepid counsel not absolutely inconsistent with practicability."
Day broke. The constant coming and going of the ambassadors, the cessation of the firing, the frightful stillness, like the silence in a room where some one is dying, made the troops begin to feel uneasy. Were they to lay down their arms after having defended themselves so well? Misgivings increased. Murmurings went through the ranks, the indignation of the inhabitants mingling with that of the soldiers. The words "coward " and "traitor" were linked with Moreau's name.
It was 9 o'clock in the morning. Suddenly the cannonade in the direction of Quercq became deafening. All started at the sound. Then followed an explosion of hope and resentment in the cry: "It is the Emperor's cannon! The Emperor is coming! C’est le canon de l’Empereur!" the shout that during the whole war had been the signal for fresh courage among the French and terror in the hearts of the enemy. The enemy might stand against Napoleon's generals, but he trembled before the approach of the man himself.
On every side the cry arose: "Tear the capitulation to pieces, the Emperor is coming! The dispute was still unsettled as to how many cannon the French might take with them, two or more. The altercation grew hot. Then General Woronzof said in Russian to Löwenstern: "Let them take all their artillery with them, and mine too, so long as they vacate the fortress and go!"
The document was scarcely signed when the sound of the cannonade was distinctly heard near at hand. Moreau grew pale; he seized Löwenstern by the arm, and cried: "You have tricked me. The firing is coming nearer. It is Blücher who is fleeing. Had I not surrendered the Emperor would have driven Blücher into the Aisne. He will have me shot. I am lost."
Napoleon pardoned him; but there is evidence to show that if the Governor had not capitulated when he did, the enemy would have raised the siege the next day.
There was a saying in France at that time that a man should always fire his last shot, because it might be the one to kill the enemy. Moreau did not fire his last shot. If he had, according to all human calculation, the enemies of France would have been beaten, and the Europe of today might have been different.
I know no story more suggestive, or more profound, than this of the siege of Soissons. I know none more moral.
There is no need to raise the objection that it is exceedingly uncertain whether Napoleon, had he not beaten the Russians, Prussians, and Austrians in 1814, would not still have been ruined by some later combination of circumstances. It is quite as possible that he would have held out. "He had become a different man; he was no longer swayed by ambitious dreams alone. All the greatness in him had been developed as it had never been before.
But even conceding the argument for a moment, the case only becomes greater and more important. We will suppose it thus: If Soissons had been held, Europe would have been spared fifteen years of terrible reaction. The fate of Europe was hanging on a thread. And it was snapped, not by cowardice or treachery, not by terrible privation, in the presence of which all better men are at their post, but by loyal, honorable small-mindedness. In this story we have the psychology of honorable small-mindedness.
You feel it coming, step by step. There are reasons galore for not doing the only thing that ought to be done.
You are eight hundred against fifty thousand. Is that a reason? You have fought bravely the whole day through against tremendous odds. Is that a reason? In any case you can only hold out a very short time. Is that a reason? By remaining firm you are hazarding the welfare of countless human beings; that is, by being small-minded, you may, possibly, probably, save the lives of worthy men. By yielding now you hope to be able to prove yourself a hero another time. As if these were reasons!
This present task is the one you must not shirk. This is the higher command, which must be unconditionally obeyed. This is the will of Caesar, the Caesar unto whom we must all render what is his own. This is Rhodes ; we must dance here. This is the spot in the universe upon which the decision depends.
And none of us can ever know whether the spot whereon we stand may not be such a turning-point, whence interminable threads start in all directions. We do not know. The only thing we do know is that now is the time to be a man, and not a weakling, a Governor, not a capitulant. And if we do not stand firm, if with the greatest respect for the circumstances we yield, and upon the most honorable terms in the world, with drums beating and trumpets sounding, we sign the capitulation, . . . close at hand we shall hear the Emperor's guns thundering loudly, and we shall feel ourselves rejected and lost, worthy of a wretch's death.