The Hidden Hand: Espionage and Napoleon


“Forgive me, Jack: sometimes I am compelled to be devious.” – Stephen to Jack, Desolation Island

The Hidden Hand: Espionage and Napoleon
By Dave Hollins

Gathering information on enemy positions is a fundamental part of the pre-battle stage of any campaign. During the Napoleonic wars, this vital role was fulfilled by the light cavalry, although it should be noted that the French were regularly criticised for their failures in this department. Information provided by the light cavalry was supplemented by the work of individual scouts from the army and sympathetic locals. However, the most effective intelligence was provided by spies – individuals paid from secret funds, who penetrated enemy headquarters or who were already in place behind enemy lines. The bulk of this espionage was directed by men such as Anne-Jean-Marie Savary, Napoleon’s main intelligence chief during the early Imperial period. By 1805 he was a Général de Division and later Chief of Police.

However, some spies were so important that Napoleon would direct them himself, excluding all except his paymaster, Chief of Staff Louis-Alexandre Berthier, from his deliberations.

Napoleon followed Frederick the Great in the way he employed spies. Frederick had used fear to encourage local mayors to despatch runners to scout the ground ahead, but for the major tasks he relied on gold. ‘A man who risks being hung in your service merits being well paid,’ said the Prussian King. By Napoleonic times, spies suspected of being military personnel in disguise were shot without trial.

The Emperor’s enemies had varied attitudes toward the employment of spies. The British spent so lavishly on spies, that the French would attribute setbacks to ‘English gold’. The Austrians, however, were short of money and their 1786 regulations made spying a preserve of the chief of staff, urging caution when dealing with spies and restricting rewards to a single payment of 100 gold sovereigns or small pensions.

Napoleon’s Campaigns in Italy, 1796 and 1800

In his first Italian campaign, Napoleon used Adjutant-Général Jean Landrieux to handle payments to spies – although individual commanders also ran their own spies. According to Dr David Chandler on page 66 of The Campaigns of Napoleon, Napoleon ignored the main Austrian army when invading Piedmont to win his first major triumph by defeating Feldmarschalleutnant Argenteau at Montenotte on 12 April 1796. Argenteau is supposed to have been delayed by poor transmission of orders, but during the campaign, using spies as couriers, Landrieux paid Argenteau 100,000 francs (about $1.6m in modern terms). Argenteau was the ‘victim’ of Napoleon’s first victory, he took payments from the French via Landrieux’s couriers and was ‘retired’ from his command immediately following the campaign – readers may draw their own conclusions. Landrieux’s reward after the fall of Milan in May 1796 was to be given charge of the ‘bureau des affaires secrètes’, which was now the central office for controlling all spies. Throughout the summer, Landrieux distributed money to various local revolutionary agitators, notably Giuseppe Giovanelli in Bergamo who received 124,000 francs (about $2m) during the campaign, which was to be used in part as bribes to bring over towns to the French without bloodshed. Giovanelli was born to a patrician family in Venice in 1759. His godfather was Ludovico Manin, the last Venetian Doge and by 1797 he was a captain and podesta (senior local government rank) in Verona, having already incited popular rebellion in Bergamo. He was later appointed President of the pro-French General Government of Venice, which voted to submit to French control. The biggest prize was the great fortress of Mantua in the centre of northern Italy. Landrieux’s offer to enter the city and contact the intellectual elite to help end the siege was received enthusiastically by Napoleon. However an old wound reopened and Landrieux failed to get to Mantua. As a result, Napoleon was forced to wait eight months and fight four battles before taking the city by starvation in February 1797.

In 1800 Napoleon returned to Italy, winning a last-gasp victory at Marengo on 14 June. His biggest problem had been getting artillery over the Alps, so he decided to march for Milan with its huge Austrian artillery depots. Forty guns crossed the Great St Bernard pass, but were halted by the Austrian garrison at Fort Bard, which was guarding the only road into the Po valley. The fort held out for 14 days from 20 May but on 2 June Napoleon marched into Milan. It looked a stunning gamble to march without his artillery, but Napoleon was acting on intelligence. As his army was crossing the Alps on 18 May, a local Italian spy was captured and taken before the First Consul. Napoleon had known the spy since 1796, when he had offered him a 1,000 francs per month for his services. In return for this fee, which was far more than his Austrian employers had paid per mission, the spy revealed that the main Austrian force in Piedmont was based due south around Turin. Marching east, the French would meet only 7,500 infantry and a few guns blocking the road to Milan. These troops were already threatened by 17,000 men moving over the central Swiss passes from Germany. There would be no serious resistance.

Double Agents

Napoleon’s spies may have been sympathetic to the French cause, but many of them also had their own agendas. The Italian spy stayed with the French for a while, but in early June, rode to Austrian headquarters in Turin. To hedge his bets, he met with the Austrian commander General der Kavallerie Michael Melas and his chief of staff, Feldmarschalleutnant Anton von Zach to inform them that Napoleon was moving on Milan. Over the next fortnight, he rode between the opposing headquarters. However after meeting the First Consul in Milan, the spy rode off to Turin with a note for 20,000 francs and a new passport to get him through French outposts. To ensure his reliability, the spy was handed an advance of 50 gold sovereigns.

After the French victory at Montebello, the spy rode back to see Zach who was now at the key fortress of Alessandria on the Turin-Mantua road. As the French approached from the east down that road, the Austrians had planned to break out north across the Po to reach Milan. The spy had been sent to establish where the Austrians were going. Zach saw his chance and despatched the spy back to Napoleon on 12 June to tell him that the Austrians had been reinforced, but were now going to break out north, while further troops were coming up the road to Alessandria from Genoa. The next day, the spy, still playing his double game, conveyed this to Napoleon as well as hinting that if he came down the Tanaro river to approach Alessandria from the north-east, he would catch the Austrians in the act of withdrawal. Napoleon saw through that and advanced on to the open plain east of Alessandria from San Giuliano, due east of the city. Keeping his troops to the centre, he fought the battle of Marengo on 14 June, believing until early afternoon that he was fighting an Austrian rearguard. As the battle raged, Napoleon realised he had been fooled in part. The Division commanded by Général Louis Charles Desaix’s had marched south against the illusory troops coming from Genoa, but by pure luck had been halted by the river Scrivia which was in flood. As a result Desaix’s division was still close enough to respond to Napoleon’s desperate appeals, returning just in time to turn defeat into a famous victory.

The Manoeuvre of Ulm

Early in his career, Savary was attached to Desaix’s advance-guard, which had spearheaded the French army across the Upper Rhine in 1796. At this time Savary had recently met a local Strasbourg trader named Charles Schulmeister, who would become the most famous of the shadowy figures in Napoleon’s espionage network. Schulmeister’s trading was a cover for smuggling across the Rhine, a practice that gave him an intimate knowledge of the area. In 1799 he helped the French cross the Rhine and five years later, with Strasbourg a hive of espionage, he was reactivated by Savary. Napoleon planned to arrest the exiled royalist, Louis Antoine Henri de Bourbon-Condé, Duc d’Enghien. In order to seize the Duke he needed to know about his movements from his home in Ettenheim, just across the Rhine in neutral Baden. The Duc regularly crossed the Rhine bridge, so Schulmeister was tasked with observing him. On 14 March 1804, with information that the Duc was in Strasbourg, Savary’s men, a party of Dragoons led by Général de Brigade Michel Ordener, went to his home in Ettenheim and captured him on his return. The Duc was taken to the forbidding Château de Vincennes outside Paris tried for treason and executed by firing squad in the moat before dawn on 21 March.

Schulmeister had impressed Napoleon who was keen to make use of a clearly capable operative for his strike into southern Germany – an attack which would take on the Austrian army under Archduke Ferdinand in late 1805. First, Murat, Savary and Berthier were placed under the guidance of Schulmeister and sent in disguise to reconnoitre the area, as French troops assembled during the late summer. The Austrians advanced first and by late September were along the river Iller in Bavaria. The Austrian chief of staff, Feldmarschalleutnant Karl von Mack had been appointed by Vienna and had quickly fallen out with the other senior commanders. Isolated in his headquarters, Mack was determined to prove his opponents wrong.

Schulmeister was first introduced to Napoleon in Strasbourg on 1 October. The new French Emperor had a problem. His plan was to pin Mack in front with one corps advancing directly across southern Germany, while the rest surrounded the Austrians from the north to cut them off from Russian reinforcements marching through Moravia (now the eastern Czech Republic). If Mack moved early enough, he could escape the trap.

Although paid well, this cunning spy also ensured he took information on the French forces. He had two reasons; Firstly, to convince Mack he had to surround his deception with genuine information. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Allied forces outnumbered the French and in the event that they won, he would appear to have been helping Mack. Schulmeister later claimed that he simply saw himself as an ‘honest broker’ – collecting money from both sides. Dieffenbach’s analysis of Schulmeister’s story questions this stance.

Soon after meeting Napoleon in 1805, Schulmeister entered Mack’s headquarters at Ulm, where the Austrian chief of staff was delighted to get new information from a source who had been in the heart of French headquarters. To appear more trustworthy, the spy also pretended to be a Hungarian nobleman, as one of his grandfathers had been, and assured Mack that he had a loyal contact in the French Commissariat. Over the next few days, as the French crossed the Rhine, Mack despatched Schulmeister on a series of missions to bring further good intelligence. He obtained an Austrian order of battle, which he promptly took back to French headquarters, passing through the outposts where, because of his red hair, he was known as ‘le petit homme rouge’. Mack, oblivious to the spy’s deception, was convinced that Schulmeister held the key to victory.

On 6 October, Mack closed the Austrian army up around Ulm. Three days later, the main French army began to sweep round to the east behind Ulm, fighting the first clash at Gunzburg, which cut the direct link to the Russians. Over the next three days Napoleon planned to close his army in on Ulm. Throughout his smuggling days Schulmeister had got to know several Austrian commanders now in the army in Bavaria, so he was supplied with large quantities of gold to buy some of them off. This tactic was partially successful. The most senior commanders including Feldmarschalleutnant Prinz Schwarzenberg and Archduke Ferdinand argued that Schulmeister was an unreliable spy and that the army should withdraw south-west towards the Austrian Tyrol to escape Napoleon’s trap. Schulmeister now had the upper hand and in a series of reports, including false orders of battle, he convinced Mack that Napoleon was in the process of withdrawing, mostly across the lower Iller south of Ulm and back west. Napoleon was in fact concentrating around Augsburg, east of Ulm, despatching one column under Marshal Nicolas Soult to Memmingen on the lower Iller.

On 13 October the situation became critical. The Austrians either had to attack or retreat quickly south-west. Preparations were underway for an attack northwards through Heidenheim, when the first report of Soult moving on Memmingen was brought into headquarters by Schulmeister himself. He subsequently claimed that he tried to persuade Mack of the reality of the situation by telling him about the real French positions, but his information was actually designed to convince Mack that he should move south against Napoleon’s supposedly tired troops crossing the lower Iller in retreat. Schulmeister persuaded Mack by offering him more false information, including reports created in French headquarters of a British landing at Boulogne and an internal rebellion against Napoleon’s rule. Mack was taken in and abandoned the move north. The troops were marched back on Ulm for an attack on 14 October. On the same day, French troops took their first significant prisoners as they closed the net on the Austrians. Six days later Mack surrendered. Delighted by the reports of rebellions, Mack had sent Schulmeister to Stuttgart on 13 October to gain more details. He probably went straight to Napoleon’s headquarters and never came back. In the aftermath of Ulm Napoleon captured Vienna and established Schulmeister as chief of police in the new administration. After the French victory at Austerlitz and the subsequent treaty of Pressburg Napoleon withdrew. Schulmeister was not quick enough and was caught by the Austrians. He was tried in Vienna in mid-1806 before a military court, as was Mack, but the spy’s cunning enabled him to escape as he was being taken to prison. He probably bribed his guards.

Willbold relates that as the Austrians marched out of Ulm, Napoleon turned to his entourage and said, ‘All praise to Charles – he was worth 40,000 men to me.’ Perhaps motivated by a reluctance to condone subterfuge, Napoleon refused to grant Schulmeister the Legion of Honour: ‘The only reward for a spy is money’ he said, but as Schulmeister’s fame spread, Napoleon felt he could reward him openly. Napoleon gave him an estate at Illkirch in Alsace and enough money that he could also afford to buy land near Paris. Unusually for a spy Schulmeister lived to see old age, dying at the age of 83.

Prussia 1806—A Near-Disaster

Napoleon’s success with spies in his early campaigns led to him becoming over-reliant on them. He understood that the primary motivation for these men was financial gain, but failed to appreciate that they would also act against him when it suited their interests.

Advancing on the road north-east towards Leipzig to face the Prussians in October 1806, the advance-guard was commanded by Marshal Murat. Information coming from units under Marshals Soult, Lannes and Murat on 11 October indicated that the Prussians were concentrated around Erfurt to the west of his axis of advance. Napoleon was then planning to swing his army to the west, taking his main force to attack the Prussians along the Erfurt, while his right wing under Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout would envelop the Prussian left and its main line of communication back north. Famously, Napoleon only struck half of the Prussian army at Jena on 14 October, while Davout’s solitary division defeated the rest at Auerstadt, despite being heavily outnumbered. Marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte (later Charles XIV of Sweden) was blamed by Napoleon for the near-disaster as he failed to march to join Davout. Argument has raged over Bernadotte’s guilt, although a clear case has been made for responsibility lying in erroneous orders issued by Berthier. However, the fundamental problem was that Napoleon’s plan of operations, devised in the early hours of 12 October, upon which the orders were based, was faulty.

Murat with the main light cavalry was now 15 miles (24km) north-east of the main army, but his orders reveal that Napoleon was relying on more than cavalry. The order of 0400 on 12 October directed Murat to Zeitz: ‘It is the Emperor’s wish that, if the information you receive shows the enemy is still near Erfurt, then you should proceed to Nauemburg from Zeitz’, taking him north-west to the north of Davout’s right. Murat was also to send skirmishers out towards Leipzig to the north-east to scout for signs of Prussian reinforcements. Neither move would tell Napoleon whether the Prussians were around Erfurt, 40 miles (64km) due west. Clearly he envisaged that Murat would receive some definite information at Zeitz, which would probably direct him further north-west. The source of the information was already known to Napoleon.

As Murat entered Zeitz on 12 October, his staff interrogated the local postmaster and examined the mail in the normal way for data on the location of the Prussian army. Suddenly, an inconspicuous civilian emerged from the crowd and identified himself as a French spy. He informed Murat that the main Prussian army lay around Erfurt. Several copies of this report were sent by Aides de Camp to Napoleon, but the spy accompanied by a brigadier was sent direct to Napoleon’s headquarters. The Emperor accompanied by Berthier was working on his orders for the next day, as in the background, the usual flow of intelligence was being plotted on a large map. Napoleon was concerned, to the exclusion of all else, to interrogate the spy, who confirmed the reports of the Prussians at Erfurt. After finishing his questioning, Napoleon turned to Berthier and began a list of orders, which Berthier then as usual broke down into specific orders for each unit, without revealing the overall plan of operations or basis of the information. These orders for 13 October reinforced Napoleon’s error.

The information passed on by the French spy had clearly come from the Erfurt area. To get from Erfurt to Zeitz whilst staying within Prussian lines would have meant travelling through the area of Auerstadt. It would have been impossible to slip backwards and forwards across the lines so this represents the only practical route. Whether the spy or one of his informants made this journey it is inconceivable that he would have been ignorant of the presence of half the Prussian army around Auerstadt. The spy had given Napoleon defective information, more credible as the Emperor trusted this man and his information had been gathered behind Prussian lines. Not only did he fail to tell Napoleon about half of the enemy army, he also told him what he wanted to hear – just enough for the Emperor to march on the wrong target.

Time To Reassess

Marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte provided the scapegoat for Napoleon’s intelligence blunder during the Jena-Auerstadt campaign. Napoleon was not above blaming his subordinates for failures in his intelligence network. (P. J. Haythornthwaite Collection)

Intelligence gathering involves the collection of information from a variety of sources, which then has to be assessed for its reliability. The data is prioritised by importance and builds an overall picture – upon which orders are based. Napoleon kept his senior commanders in the dark about his plans of operations and his intelligence gathering. When things went well his apparent intuition appeared inspired and added to the myth of Napoleonic genius. However if and when things went awry the dangers were correspondingly greater. In these circumstances Napoleon did not hesitate to lay the blame at the door of his commanders – as in the case of Bernadotte. A greater understanding of Napoleon’s campaigns would be possible if we knew the full extent of the intelligence he relied upon and its impact on key decisions.

Further Reading:

Chandler, D., Campaigns of Napoleon, (1967)

Castle, I., Austerlitz 1805, Campaign 101, (Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2002)

Chandler, D., Jena 1806, Campaign 20, (Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1993)

Cook, J., Bernadotte – Is there a case for the defence?, (First Empire Magazine No. 47, July 1999)

Dieffenbach, L.F., Carl Ludwig Schulmeister, der Hauptspion, (1897)

Elmer, A., Napoleon’s Leibspion, (1931)

Elting, J., Swords Around a Throne, (1988)

Hollins, D., Marengo 1800, Campaign 70, (Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2000)

Savant, J., Les espions de Napoleon, (1957)

Schulmeister, C.L., Bruchstucke aus dem Leben des Charles Ludwig Schulmeister, (1817)

Sparrow, E., Secret Service: British Agents in France 1792-1815, (1999)

Willbold, F., Napoleons Feldzug um Ulm, (1987)

Courtesy of Dave Hollins and Osprey Publishing.
Image: Napoleon at the Bridge of Arcole by Antoine-Jean Gros. Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

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