One of the themes of “War and Peace”, Leo Tolstoy’s epic tale set in the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815, is that history is made not by the policies and personalities of ‘great men’, but by little events and insignificant people occasionally gaining a momentum that carries ‘great men’ along – sometimes to triumph, sometimes to disaster.
MANY historians say that the French did not win the battle of Borodino because Napoleon had a cold,* and that if he had not had a cold the orders he gave before and during the battle would have been still more full of genius and Russia would have been lost and the face of the world have been changed.
To historians who believe that Russia was shaped by the will of one man — Peter the Great — and that France from a republic became an empire and French armies went to Russia at the will of one man — Napoleon — to say that Russia remained a power because Napoleon had a bad cold on the twenty-fourth of August may seem logical and convincing.*
If it had depended on Napoleon’s will to fight or not to fight the battle of Borodino, and if this or that other arrangement depended on his will, then evidently a cold affecting the manifestation of his will might have saved Russia, and consequently the valet who omitted to bring Napoleon his waterproof boots on the twenty-fourth would have been the saviour of Russia.
* The Battle of Borodino took place some seventy miles west of Moscow in 1812. Napoleon did win the day and gain entry to Moscow, but for some reason he did not pursue his advantage as ruthlessly as on similar occasions, and was soon afterwards forced into a humiliating retreat which led to his (temporary) abdication as French Emperor on April 11th, 1814.
* The date of the battle itself was August 26th, 1812, ‘Old Style’ (i.e. on the Julian Calendar in use in Russia until 1918, and in England until 1752). That same day was September 7th ‘New Style’.