Napoleon’s Humor

Can you picture Napoleon Bonaparte giggling?
Caulaincourt says he started joking while they were riding incognito through enemy country in a rickety sleigh and nearly freezing.

Who was Caulaincourt?
Napoleon’s Master of the Horse. Caulaincourt’s book, With Napoleon in Russia, is one of the best things you can ever read about the Emperor. Caulaincourt made notes of their conversations and you hear Napoleon’s very words.

What were they doing in that rickety sleigh?

Napoleon was hurrying back to Paris after (actually, during) the destruction of his army in Russia.
They tried to pass as an official and his aide. Caulaincourt was the official, Napoleon, his aide. Of course they hoped no one would ever ask or become suspicious. At the beginning of this trip, while still in Russia, they had a few guards with them, but now, on the last dangerous leg through Prussia, they are virtually alone.

Boney (as the British soldiers used to call him) starts wondering aloud what will happen if they are recognized and arrested. For a moment the style of the book, their conversation in those very scary circumstances, almost reminds you, as it grows funny, of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. “Do you have our guns ready, Caulaincourt?” asks the Emperor.
“They´re right here, Sire.”
“What´s the idea? We blow the brains out of anybody who sticks his head into our sleigh, huh?”
“That’s it.”
Then they talk about the possibility of anyone knowing of their presence in Prussia (very unlikely) and of a plot to kill or capture them.
“Do you know what they´ll do if they don´t just shoot us right here?” says Napoleon. “They´ll take us to Berlin and organize a big trial. Or make the French pay ransom for us—millions of napoleons.”
“You won´t get off that easy,” says Caulaincourt, always more negative than the Emperor. “I figure they´ll turn us over to the English. They´d love to have Your Majesty in their Tower.”
“They´ll put us on a ship and haul us to London in a cage, is what they´ll do,” says Boney, beginning to imagine it. And he starts to see the funny side. “They´ll put you, Caulaincourt, in a cage and show you off to the London merchants. I can just see you all full of honey and covered with flies in that cage. How would you like that? ”

By the end of this they are both giggling like kids and Caulaincourt says to the reader: “I never saw the Emperor in such good spirits, so human, so funny. His gaiety was so infectious that it was some time before we could speak a word without finding some fresh source of amusement. And I can´t tell you what joy it gave me to see the great man laughing at this moment of supreme danger and nearly unbearable cold.”

Later their sleigh breaks down and they have to stop just anywhere to get it fixed. The Emperor imagines that the postmaster recognizes him and will call the police. The German stablehands go so slowly, seem to drag their feet. “Must be something wrong,” Boney tells the brave Caulaincourt, who reassures his liege that nothing is going to happen.

When it´s all over and they´re back on the snow, whizzing along, Napoleon, relieved, starts again with the fun. “There for awhile I thought the jig was up,” he says. “I told myself: this is act one of the cage story. Caulaincourt had better start learning to growl like a bear.” And he starts giggling all over again.


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5 Responses to Napoleon’s Humor

  1. Charlotte Graham says:

    this is a super old post but I figured I’d give it my two cents. Napoleon was a great man. Period. He will always be remembered as a great man because he WAS a great man.
    The world has never seen, and never will see another like him.
    he was like his own star, burning bright and fading away. He lives on in our memories, and in the civil code, and in everything he accomplished for the glory of France.
    viva France, Viva Emperor Napoleon!

  2. wpm1955 says:

    As usual, you make me feel as though I am right there, living the adventure with them!

  3. charleyjk4 says:

    The french are proud of him?.How come he was done in by a french spy secreted by the Bourbons at his exile in St Helena?.

  4. 100swallows says:

    In fact, Danu, the Napoleon that comes through in that book is almost a caricature of the self-deluded dictator. Caulaincourt everywhere represents common sense and Napoleon, the illusions of a genius or a madman. Caulaincourt says he was an unbelievable optimist. No matter what went wrong, rather than feel depressed, Napoleon saw the good side and came away with added enthusiasm. “You always paint everything black,” he tells Caulaincourt all the time–in fact, it is hard to imagine anything blacker. He has just lost an army of 500,000 men, mainly because of his own faulty appreciation of circumstances.

    One of Napoleon’s peculiarities was his way of making everyone believe he was nearly a god. All of Europe was wow-ed by the guy. Even today, in spite of all those thousands of deaths he caused and the folly of his ambitions, historians don’t go hard on him. The French still seem proud of him. “He must not have been as primitive as Hitler and Mussolini,” you start to think. But read this book and see how “enlightened” he was. Original, yes; but a scourge for the world.

  5. ivdanu says:

    I suppose giggling Napoleon could be funny and human…if you don’t consider also that he was cowardly running away from the “sinking ship” he should have left the last one, if he were that great… Tens if not hundreds of thousands of men lost their life or get mutilated etc. for his – and others – grandomania… Personally, I consider an artist like Michelangelo or Van Gogh a more greater hero than the little corsicain… I almost know that you too, swallows…

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