The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier

History comes to us in many forms.  Most historians try and make sense of their time directly, or perhaps try and 6314understand their time through understanding the past. In his diary, Jakob Walter only seeks to relate his own experience.  He doesn’t even really attempt to understand  his experience in context.  He has no comments on Napoleon and his policies, wars, and treaties.  His field of vision concerned himself only.

This certainly does not make Walter a selfish man, or even a narrow one automatically.  Walter came from Germany, an area conquered by Napoleon probably around 1807.  When his army got pressed into Napoleon’s service, his main concern became hoping that he and his brother (also a soldier for Napoleon) would stay alive.  He likely cared nothing for Napoleon himself or any grand moral or political scheme Napoleon may have had.  It was not his war.

So his narrow focus has no moral overtones necessarily, but this narrow vision of Walter’s writing has occasional parallels in his actions.  We know the invasion of Russia made for a hellish retreat for Napoleon’s army.  Walter lets us know that even in the initial months of advance into Russia supplies were scanty, at least for the “allied troops” like Walter.  This meant foraging, which the Russians made difficult by hiding and burning their own supplies.  Walter writes,

If they had voluntarily removed the simple covers [of their storage areas] much of their household furniture would have remained unspoiled.  For it was necessary to raise the floors and the beams in order to find anything, and to turn upside down anything that was covered.

Walter may have cared somewhat for Russians, but his argument boils down to, “If only they wouldn’t hide their food we wouldn’t have to destroy their homes to find it.”  He doesn’t concern himself at all about the larger picture, only the practical aspects of staying alive.  Limiting oneself to purely “practical” concerns will likely have moral consequences.

Most anyone with a vague familiarity of the Russian campaign will know of the terrible retreat. Walter’s details of Napoelon’s withdraw bring out the ghastly nature of his experience.  All semblance of unity and order broke down in the quest to stay alive.  I remember years ago reading Elie Weisel’s Night, a great book that should be read, but one I never wish to read again.  What made Weisel’s experience so tragic and terrible for me was not just the inhumanity of the Nazi’s.  Instead, Weisel’s descriptions of how the prisoners often turned on each other for bread or “good” jobs really devastated me.  Perhaps, I thought, had the prisoners united against the Nazi’s they could have redeemed the situation to some degree, but in Weisel’s account they rarely, if ever, did this.  Obviously the retreat from Russia is not the same thing, yet I was reminded of Night when reading how Napoleon’s army turned on each other, stealing food and horses from their comrades in arms with no hesitations.  Hobbes might say that this is what happens to human nature when the veneer of civilization gets stripped away.

Napoleon's Retreat

While Walter had a narrow vision some larger aspects of Napoleon’s empire reveal themselves.  The FrenchRevolution proclaimed “The Rights of Man,” at least in theory.  In practice it tended to mean rights for those who agreed with the Revolution’s shifting meaning of what it meant to be French particularly, not human generally.  After Robespierre’s execution much of this petered out, and Napoleon helped end it.  But though Napoleon was in some ways an ambassador of the French Revolution’s ideals of universal equality, the “French” emphasis made itself evident.  Whatever supplies Napoleon could muster from headquarters went first to French troops (especially his Imperial Guard), then to the “Allied” troops.  In the Russian campaign, supplies were scarce enough that there was never a “then” at all.  The sham flimsiness of Napoleon’s alliance gets indirectly exposed in Walter’s account.  That many of the “allies” Napoleon fought with in Russia in 1812 would turn on him in 1813 makes perfect sense.

So perhaps sometimes narrow keyholes can open up a vision of broader vistas.