Free Essay On As Napoleon Discerns The Retreat Of His Grand Army Toward The Berezina River During The
“An Ordinary Soldier on Campaign with Napoleon (1812)”
Russian Campaign of 1812, German conscript Jakob Walter observed: "[His] outward manner seemed indifferent and unconcerned over his soldier's wretchedness. He may have felt only ambition and lost his honor in his heart. Although the French and Allies shouted oaths and curses about his guilty person, he heard them unmoved." This mutual sense of apathy permeates Jakob Walter's Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, a memoir written by a German conscript in Napoleon's Grand Army that details the arduous marches undertaken by Napoleon's army in Prussia, Poland and ultimately Russia. While several accounts of the Napoleonic wars written by officers exist, Walter's firsthand retelling of his experiences remains the only known account of the wars by a German conscript. Jakob Walter's diary adds to the compendium of knowledge on the Napoleonic Era by providing a window into the concerns and motivations of the common man fighting as a conscript in Napoleon’s Grand Army, which reveals an overwhelming lack of patriotic zeal and overriding desire to survive. Examining Walter’s lived wartime experiences during the three campaigns he participated in for the service of Napoleon Bonaparte, it becomes apparent that Water’s escalating apathy as suggested by the detailed observations he records of the surrounding areas combined with his lack of reverence for his fellow soldiers and leader suggest fundamental problems posed by Napoleon’s multi-national, largely conscripted Grand Army.
Regardless of the state of the army during his three military campaigns, Walter’s preoccupation with finding food, drink and modes of travel suggest a mere desire to survive rather than a patriotic zeal to fight for Napoleon. At the outset of the diary, Walter notes that during the Prussian campaign, “[the conscripts] were always given good quarters everywhere, which kept me always healthy and cheerful in spite of the continuous marching.” Much of Walter’s fixation on finding food and shelter emanates from the manner in which Napoleon supplied his armies. If the war went well, the soldiers received a small ration of bread, but must forage or trade with local populations for the rest of the food. This rendered the well-being of the men on their own, fostering a sense of abandonment in soldiers such as Walter throughout. Walter spends the large majority of his recollections of the Russian campaign detailing the wretched conditions the soldiers endured and how such conditions gradually stripped them of their humanity. After foraging for some bread on the army’s march to Smolensk, Walter encountered two German sergeants who robbed him of his bread immediately; Walter felt that their hunger robbed him of his food rather than their person, lamenting that “much of humanity of man already had vanished because of hunger”. When the bitter coldness set in, Walter further detailed the desperate desire to survive drove men to inhumane actions. Warming fires had very limited room, and the crouching soldiers surrounding the fire would never let the “shades of death” near the fire. Enduring such despicable conditions preoccupied Walter and his comrades with the needs and desires to merely survive rather than discuss fighting for a cause they do not believe in.
This feeling of indifference towards the outcome of the war is evident even during the early Prussian and Austrian campaigns, where the relative successes of the Grand Army did little to foster military pride in Walter; rather, his detailed descriptions of the nature and places he marches and his fixation on finding alcohol in the cities quartering the soldiers suggests a need for distractions from and coping mechanisms for the weary marching and separation from home and family. A stonemason who “worked his trade in various ways,” Walter provided detailed descriptions of the buildings he observed as he marched in the campaigns as a way to cope with the arduous conditions endured. As the soldiers marched toward Torgau in the campaign against Austria observed the new fortifications built in the city and “noticed especially the beautiful jointing of the stones,” and further detailed the intricate roof work on the casements nearby (36). During the Prussian campaign on the march from Thorn to Colberg Walter expressed great awe for the brightly colored, “beautiful frogs” who captivated the soldiers as they marched (9), and he remarks that several of the cities. Walter’s constant search for the beauty during the marches as well as his fixation on alcohol express the need for soldiers to find ways of coping with the arduous living conditions the soldiers had been thrust into. The soldiers’ spirits were lifted at the beginning of the Russian campaign because of the plentiful supply of wine they had (33); even in the most wretched conditions on the march back from Moscow, Walter gulped brandy down despite an insatiable appetite (95). This constant need for distractions expresses a psychological apathy towards the war which they are engaged in, which can be explained through the status of common men as conscripts rather than volunteers or trained soldiers fighting for their countries.
Such disinterest towards the war stems from his status as a conscript who feels no patriotic zeal for the cause and thus turns his thoughts towards his fellow countrymen, his family and religion to persevere for a safe return home. Walter constantly affirms his strong religious sentiments throughout his diary, turning to God as his impetus to endure such horrific conditions. Walter thanks God when he finds food (46) and for keeping him alive and unwounded during the most horrific and bloody battles during the campaigns (49). At the end of his memoir, Walter said of his sisters upon his arrival that they had “so often prayed to God” and cried aloud in the hope that they would witness his safe return home, implicating that the religious conviction never wavered in his family even during the most difficult times (108). Walter found solace in the Catholic faith as a result of the hopelessness and abandonment he felt during the Russian campaign. Rather than persevering for the victory of the Grand Army, Walter’s goal remained returning safely home to his kin and friends. During the march to the “Holy Valley” where arduous marching took place and hunger wracked him, Walter said “the thought of my brothers and sisters so far away added to my pain!” (53). When death seemed near, the thought of his family sustained him to keep fighting for his life. His observations of and emotional response to the two brothers who had come so far on the retreat home buttressed by each other’s brotherly love this assertion (107). Love for God and family rather than loyalty to Napoleon and the Grand Army and love of country undergirded the common soldier.
Walter’s status as a conscript from Germany validates why he shows little devotion to the war itself, which is manifested in his gradual aversion towards Napoleon, suggesting that the common soldiers recognized that Napoleon was out of touch with those in his army and disregarded their well-being. The words used to describe Napoleon over time become less formal and respectful, mirroring the state of the army as the campaigns progressed. During the Prussian campaign, Walter refers to Napoleon as “King,” expressing great reverence for him as the commander in chief of the army and connotes a paternalistic relationship between the two (18). At the outset of the Russian campaign during the march to Poland, Walter refers to Napoleon several times as the Crown Prince (37); Walter subsequently notes that despite the poor quality of food available to the soldiers, every soldier retained his vitality and strength to continue marching despite daily hunger pangs (37). As the Russian campaign progresses, however, a negative shift in attitudes towards Napoleon reflects how the degrading and horrifying conditions of the conscripts experienced in war with little regard of Napoleon affected this consciousness; the soldiers no longer viewed him as a fatherly figure worthy of fighting for but as someone out for his own fame and glory. As the Russian campaign continues, and daily hardships such as excessive hunger and thirst led many soldiers to commit suicide, Walter refers to Napoleon as “Bonaparte (41). Towards the end of the diary as thousands of men perished by freezing to death or extreme hunger, Walter calls Napoleon by his first name, the most informal way of addressing an individual. In doing so, feelings of aversion emerge towards the leader of the Grand Army; despite thousands and thousands of men shrieking in pain, murdering and torturing one another as they marched away from the Berezina River, Napoleon abandoned his troops in order to reach home faster (89). The brutal conditions experienced as the war progressed accounts for the shift in Walter’s attitude towards Napoleon; the detachment between leader and soldier undergirds the indifference conveyed by Walter towards the war and explains why his sheer desire to survive and see his family again predominates the latter part of his diary.
Walter’s loyalty lies with his fellow countrymen rather than with Napoleon and soldiers from other countries, which is expressed through his attachment to his major as well as through the indifference he feels upon observing the deaths of his fellow members of the Grand Army. Several times in the account Walter rejoices at reuniting with his major from the German army (71). He talks about his major in a familial way, still treating him like his “master” (78) despite Walter’s previous observation that the world he was experiencing, “was like a world turned upside down” (71). Walter furthermore refused to let his own countrymen die of starvation despite his own suffering (94). This affinity with his own countrymen does not appear shared with other nationalities fighting for the Grand Army. Observing the strewn bodies on the bridges, Walter notes, “it is with horror, but at that time it was with a dull, indifferent feeling, that I looked at the masses of horses and people which lay dead, piled up high on the bridge” (86). He feels nothing for the men he fights with, yet overextends himself to his fellow countrymen even in the direst circumstances. This implicates underlying problems with a multi-national army fighting without nationalistic fervor, as the men lacked any feeling towards defending one another.
Jakob Walter’s moving account of his experiences in Napoleon’s Grand Army provides valuable insight into the psychology of the common soldier during the Napoleonic Era. The lack of sources elucidating the common man’s concern places high value on Walter’s account. The overwhelming sense of apathy which permeates the account exposes the obstacles posed by a multi-national armies composed primarily of conscripts: without nationalistic and patriotic zeal combined with a leader seeking personal fame and glory through militaristic enterprise, military success will be difficult to sustain. Such an account holds significance by not only exposing the flaws of Napoleon’s military machine in terms of equipping and supplying troops but also reveals the potency of nationalism in reviving a country’s strength. Walter provides historical discourse with a counter narrative which exposes the underbelly of the Napoleonic Wars often overlooked because of the grandeur associated with the figure of Napoleon in the grand narrative.