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Roncevaux Pass, Napoleon and Anvil-Dragoon

One of the best things about looking at history through a somewhat empirical lens is that the skilled practitioner can make correlations that were simply not possible to contemporaries of events.  Then again, so can semi-competent duffers like your current correspondent.  Such is the correlation we can make with 15 August and France’s fate.

Roncevaux Pass was an ambush by a largely Christian Basque guerilla force and the rearguard of Charlemagne’s retreating army after his invasion of northern Spain on this day in the year 778.  The action killed Roland, the commander, and created a legend in the Christian-Moor conflict that would rage for another three centuries.  It also immortalized the sacrifices of Christian “knights” and other semi-nobles that would depict them largely as stories would depict them for generations: pure-hearted, noble-browed heroes on horseback in shining armor.  That most were paladins–soldiers for hire–seems to be left out.

Roncevaux Pass immortalized the Christian knights as pure-hearted, noble-browed heroes on horseback in shining armor.

On 14 August 1769 Napoleon Bonaparte was born to minor French nobility in Ajaccio, Corsica.  He was the master of Europe before he was thirty-five, by which time he was well on the way to destroying it as it was known under the Bourbons.  It was Napoleon who won France’s  last major war (War of the Sixth Coalition) in 1809: even if they were “victors” in WWI and WWII, France is better described as having survived, rather than “won.”  Napoleon, for good or ill, ingrained “libertie, egalitie, fraternitie” into the French soul even as he destroyed the economy, abandoned two armies in the field (Egypt and Russia), and became a romantic legend on both sides of the Atlantic that grew larger with each successive generation.

Napoleon, for good or ill, ingrained “libertie, egalitie, fraternitie” into the French soul

And, on this date in 1944, France managed to redeem itself somewhat for the disasters of 1815 and 1940, with their rebuilt army’s superb performance during the invasion of Southern France known in history as Operation Anvil-Dragoon   Originally intended to be conducted simultaneously with the better-known Overlord landings in Normandy, the landings on the French Riviera had to wait for landing craft.  Legend has it that Winston Churchill was unhappy with what he saw as a diversion from more important turf in the Balkans (contemporary discussion says this is not as true as Churchill would have later stated it was).  So, according to legend, the name Operation Anvil was changed to Dragoon because Churchill was “dragooned” into supporting it, though the reason for the name change was somewhat more prosaic and not Churchill’s at all.

...the landings on the French Riviera had to wait for landing craft.

Ultimately, in the distance of time, we can see that 14 August, for France, was just another day, though in 1945 it was, like the rest of the world, a relief when Japan agreed to surrender and the Showa Emperor Hirohito publicly agreed with the broadcast of the Imperial Rescript in 15 August, 1945.  But legends like the romantic knights of French stories, the “genius” of Napoleon and the landings in Southern France live on, as do the legends of a Japanese “surrender” by a “government” that was anything but.  But that’s another story.

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17 November: A War with No Casualties Begins

On 17 November 1810, the Anglo-Swedish War began between Great Britain and Sweden, one of the more remarkable conflicts in the chaotic world that Napoleon made.  What makes it remarkable is simply that the conflict had no casualties between belligerents. no campaigns were planned, and that neither “side” wanted any, either.  It ended with a treaty when a third party got invaded by yet someone else.

It will be easier for the reader to understand that Napoleon Bonaparte may have been a brilliant general very early in his career, but never was he much of a diplomat.  After he spread the French revolution across Europe he invented something called the Continental System to punish Great Britain for not being as accessible to his armies as he wanted them to be, and for smashing his fleet at Trafalgar.  Since the British were so vile as to impose a blockade on Europe, he would impose a blockade on them.  But the Continental System wasn’t a blockade as we might understand it, where cargo ships are stopped and seized on their way to English ports since France lacked the shops to do that.  No, this was a blockade imposed on Europe, to cut off British goods from Europe and vice versa.  As blockades go, it was pretty lame, but it did work, somewhat.  The Americans happily violated it wherever possible and so did everyone else, since even the French couldn’t be everywhere at the same time, and there were more than a hundred seaports in continental Europe.  Where there’s money to be made, folks will find a way to make it.

So back to Sweden.  After the Russians were defeated at Friedland on 14 June 1807, the Treaty of Tilsit was imposed on Russia, and Sweden, being a part of the Fourth Coalition against Napoleon. was compelled by Tilsit to become a part of the Continental System.  Sweden was slow to comply, so by 1810 Napoleon was issuing ultimatums.  Eventually this led to Sweden declaring war on Great Britain on 17 November 1810.

More than once source maintains that there were no casualties in this war, at least none in engagements between Swede and Englishman.  There were a handful of Swedish peasants killed in a conscription riot, it would seem, but Britain still maintained its naval base on the Swedish island of Hano.  When Napoleon occupied Swedish Pomerania and the island of Rugen in 1812 while invading Russia, Sweden made peace with Britain with the Treaty of Orebro.

The Anglo-Swedish War is an example of what a mess Europe was in at the time, and was proof positive that Napoleon may have been a good general once, but he had a tendency to overstep the capabilities of his diplomats and his forces.  Irritating Sweden while not bothering Britain at all was not a way to win his vision…which as time goes on is less and less clear to scholars.