‘So soon?’ Josephine pouted as she looked down at Napoleon.
He nodded. ‘My dear, we should never have stayed in Paris this last month. It was never my intention.’ He yawned. ‘By now I had hoped we would have been with the headquarters at Strasbourg.’
‘Strasbourg . . .’ Josephine repeated vaguely. ‘A nice enough city, I suppose, but it is not Paris. I sometimes wonder how those provincials cope with such lack of stimulation.’
Napoleon glanced at her with an amused smile. ‘Sometimes you are such a snob, my dear. Not everyone enjoys your privileges. And it is not as if all this finery is something you were born into.’ He gestured round the ornately decorated sleeping chamber with its heavy purple curtains, gold-leaf mouldings and thick carpets. ‘Nor was I, for that matter.’
He stared at the room for a moment in thought. In truth he felt little for all these luxurious trappings. The Corsican streak in him tended to value the practical over the ostentatious, but the panoply of the imperial household was necessary to bolster the legitimacy of the new regime and set it on a level with the other ruling houses of Europe. It was a sad truth, he reflected, that men were so easily swayed by baubles. But a useful truth. Surround a man with the trappings of a king and he would be treated as one, even though he was of the same flesh and blood as those who bowed to him. That was why the moment he became Emperor Napoleon had insisted that all the old protocols of the deposed Bourbon household be consulted to ensure that the imperial court appeared authentic and traditional, and not spirited out of thin air. To be sure, the palaces, servants and procedures looked the part, but there was some nagging doubt in his mind and he looked at Josephine again.
‘Do you think we are carrying it off ?’
She raised a plucked brow at him. ‘What do you mean, my darling?’
‘All this.’ He waved a hand at the room and then continued,‘And us. Emperor Napoleon and Empress Josephine.’
She shrugged.‘What does it matter?You are the Emperor. By law and by the will of the people. That’s all that matters, surely?’
‘I don’t know.’ Napoleon frowned.‘I feel that I have earned the right to call myself Emperor, as much as any man can.’
‘And yet?’ Josephine prompted.
‘And yet I sometimes feel as if I am playing a role, and so are you, and all the others. All the chamberlains, stewards, equerries, masters of the hunt, and so on. We wear the costumes and speak the proper lines, but at the end of the day it appears to knowledgeable onlookers that we are just performers.Take our friend Talleyrand, for example. I can never shake off the feeling that he considers me his inferior.’
‘He considers everybody his inferior.’ Josephine chuckled bitterly. ‘Why, I am sure that when the man dies the very first thing he will do when he reaches heaven is admonish the almighty for taking as many as six days to create the world.’
‘If such a man as Talleyrand is admitted to heaven, then there is hope for us all.’ Napoleon was silent for a moment before continuing. ‘The man despises me. He thinks me a coarse upstart. And he’s not the only one. I’ve seen the way some of the aristos look at me.’
‘You are imagining it, my love.’
‘No.They only serve me for as long as they can profit from it.They would as soon serve under a Bourbon as me. In fact, I imagine they would prefer a Bourbon ruler to a Bonaparte. I fear that’s why we shall never know peace in Europe while I am Emperor.’
Josephine looked at him for a moment and then shook her head. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘These endless coalitions of other nations are determined to defeat France, or rather to defeat me. Perhaps that is what all this is about.The revolution toppled the Bourbons and proved that the people could choose their own ruler, rather than have one imposed by divine right. That is what they cannot tolerate. As long as I stand as refutation of the birthright of aristocrats and monarchs they can never rest easy. I, and what I stand for, must be swept away in order that they can survive on their thrones.’ He sighed wearily. ‘There can be no peace. This is a war without precedent, Josephine. This is not about redrawing boundaries, nor redressing grievances, nor even about the shift in power between royal households.This is a war between two ideals. A war to determine whether we shall live in a world governed by birthright, or a world governed by raw ability.’
‘Really?’ Josephine looked at him and stifled a yawn. ‘If you say so, my love. Now then.’ She stroked a hand down his chest and slowly continued across his stomach, the tips of her fingers setting his nerves alight. ‘If there is to be a war, we must make the most of our time together.’
Napoleon’s eyelids fell as her fingers gently closed around his penis. As it stirred, he let out a faint moan. For a moment, at least, his thoughts on the destiny of Europe were put aside.
The following day, a signal reached Paris from the army headquarters at Strasbourg. The staff officer who had interrupted Napoleon as he approved the drafts of his orders and instructions in his office stood at attention breathing hard as the Emperor scanned the short note scribbled on the slip of paper. Napoleon rose from his desk and crossed the room to the map table that ran along one wall. Shuffling through the maps that were spread out on its top, he pulled out one that displayed the heart of Europe, from the eastern frontier of France across to the heart of the Austrian empire. Summoning the staff officer to join him, Napoleon tapped the uneven line that marked the passage of the river Inn.
‘Murat’s scouts report that an Austrian army under General Mack has crossed the Inn, and is heading for Munich.’ He paused, and then nodded to himself. ‘They mean to crush our Bavarian allies before turning on Strasbourg. Murat says that there is no sign of the Russians as yet. It seems that the Austrians are intent on grabbing the glory of defeating France before their allies can intervene. Very well, let them come.’
He turned to the staff officer, his mind made up. ‘Send a signal to Strasbourg immediately. Tell Berthier to give the order for the Grand Army to begin concentration.They are to be ready to cross the Rhine no later than the last week of September. Got that?’
‘And have Berthier draft a general order to the troops. He is to tell them that all the riches of Vienna will be theirs for the taking, before the year is out.’
Strasbourg, 24 September 1805
As two of the junior staff officers spread out the map and weighted the corners Napoleon looked round the table at the commanders of his army corps.There was an expectant and excited air about these men he had come to know so well over the years.They were the cream of those officers who had risen through the ranks during the wars that had followed the revolution. Unlike their Austrian and Russian counterparts most of Napoleon’s marshals and generals were not aristocrats, and owed their present positions to their own efforts. They would need every last reserve of courage and quick wits in the weeks to come, Napoleon reflected as he watched them lean forward to examine the map spread out before them. Berthier had already marked out the dispositions of the Grand Army, and the possible locations and strength of enemy forces.
Clearing his throat, Napoleon motioned to them to take their seats on either side of the table.
‘Gentlemen, before I begin let me say that you have all performed prodigious feats of organisation in preparing your men so swiftly for this campaign. I am in your debt.’ He bowed his head.‘Now then, on to the plan. As you can see, it appears that our enemies have not yet realised that the main weight of our attack will be directed across the Rhine and on towards the Danube. Our spies report that there are nearly a hundred thousand Austrian troops concentrating to attack northern Italy. Meanwhile another twenty thousand are defending Tyrol, while a third force of seventy thousand, under General Mack and Archduke Ferdinand, is advancing towards the Rhine to try to cut us off from our Bavarian allies. It is likely that Mack has also been tasked with holding us back long enough to permit the Russian armies of Kutusov and Bennigsen to join forces with them.’
Napoleon paused to let his commanders take in the situation. ‘The Austrians have already made their first mistake, in dividing their strength.They assume that this war will be like the last and fought out on two fronts, either side of the Alps. But this time we will undertake only one offensive, over the Danube. Our forces in Italy will merely contain the Austrians. The Grand Army has been given the best men and resources to carry out its task and there is no enemy in Europe that can match our men.The main danger facing us is the possibility of the Austrians’ trading space for time in order to combine with the Russians. It is imperative that we seize the chance to strike at the Austrians, before the Russians arrive, and crush them individually.’
Napoleon leaned forward and tapped the area of the map that depicted the Black Forest. ‘We begin by making a feint here. Murat’s cavalry will move towards the upper Danube, as if screening our advance.While General Mack’s attention is focused on the Black Forest the real offensive will begin.’ Napoleon swept his hand in an arc across the map, from the Rhine through Bavaria and over the Danube. ‘The Grand Army will strike east, as fast as it can march, until it is level with Munster, and then turn south, cross the Danube and cut General Mack’s lines of supply.Then he will be forced to surrender, or be overwhelmed. Once Mack has been dealt with, we will attack the other Austrian armies in turn. If we move fast enough we will knock Austria out of the war before the Russians can intervene.’
Bernadotte seared his throat.‘Do we have any information about the location of Kutusov or Bennigsen, sire?’
Napoleon shook his head. ‘Not yet. But Murat’s scouts have orders to advance along both banks of the Danube as far as possible to give us the earliest news of the appearance of Russian troops.’
‘And if they do appear before we have crushed General Mack?’
‘Then it will be the job of your corps to hold them back, Bernadotte. As soon as you cross the Danube at Ingolstadt your men will turn east and guard our flank.’
Bernadotte quickly searched for the crossing point on the map and nodded. ‘Very well, sire. But what if the Austrians attempt to bring up their forces from Tyrol, or Italy?’
‘Davout’s corps will block them,’ Napoleon replied with a quick glance at the other officer. ‘That leaves five corps to surround and destroy General Mack. Assuming he doesn’t guess our plans before we can get across the Danube.’
‘And if he does?’
‘Then he will be forced to turn his army round and attempt to march out of the trap before it closes. However, as some of us have discovered in the past, our Austrian friends are not renowned for the speed of their marching.’
Those who had served with Napoleon on his Italian campaigns smiled in amusement at the comment as the Emperor continued.
‘If Mack tries to retreat we should still have time to cut across his line of march, and destroy each of his columns in turn. Either way, we will compel him to fight on our terms, and most likely on ground of our choosing.With luck, the Russians will arrive just in time to witness the surrender of Austria.’
Soult raised his eyebrows and said mildly, ‘That assumes that the Russians won’t reach the Danube for at least another six weeks. Can we be sure of that, sire?’
‘As sure as we can be of anything,’ Napoleon responded dismissively. ‘Time and surprise are on our side, gentlemen. Even the weather seems to favour our cause, for now. I sense that the Grand Army is about to take its place in history.’
At dawn the following day, Napoleon sat with his staff on a hill above the Rhine watching the dense columns of Lannes’s infantry cross the river and climb up the slope on the eastern bank. The air was cool and overhead the sky was clear, promising fine conditions for the advance of the Grand Army. Away to the north, downriver, Napoleon knew that the other corps would also be on the move, tramping east behind a screen of Murat’s cavalry, who were tasked with preventing the Austrians from discovering the vast army sweeping across Bavaria.
Over two hundred thousand men and fifty thousand horses were involved in the vast strategic manoeuvre, and with them went several hundred cannon, engineer columns, pontoon detachments and medical staff, together with the vast supply trains carrying ammunition and food. The latter would only be distributed when the French columns closed on their enemy and foraging became too dangerous. It was a vast enterprise, and not without its risks should the enemy discover the ruse, yet Napoleon felt confident that every detail that mattered had been accounted for. Even so, he turned to Berthier and quietly asked, ‘Any news from Murat?’