The Army of Italy - 6th January, 1797


One of Napoleon's most impressive traits was his amazing mental capacity to retain information. It allowed him to closely monitor and control effectively more government, military, civil and personal matters than a legion of administrators could. Over time, this super human attention to detail did wane and was a major reason for the collapse of the Empire. Whether it was a faltering of Napoleon's capabilities or the exponential increase of responsibilities brought about by the expansion of the Empire or more likely a combination of the two is of little matter. What is of importance is that part of his genius was this ability to observe; understand what he saw; and to remember the minute details of the incident indefinitely. It became one more building block in the Napoleonic legend as old veterans would tell the tale of how Napoleon singled them out of line and called them by their name.

Headquarters, Milan, January 6th, 1797.

To the Executive Directory

THE more I probe, in my leisure moments, the irremediable wounds of the Italian Army administration, the more I am convinced of the need of a quick and certain cure.

In the paymaster's department the books are in a shocking state of disorder. Nothing is properly accounted for. The paymaster himself-there is good reason to think-is a rascal. His staff are fools. Everyone has his price. The army costs five times as much as it needs, for the storekeepers are in league with the war commissioners, and make false returns.

The leading actresses in Italy are kept by employers of the French Army. Luxury, embezzlement, and malversation are rampant. The laws cannot deal with all this. There is only one remedy, and it is one suggested alike by experience, history, and the character of republican government-namely a syndicature, or court consisting of one or three persons, whose authority should not last more than three or five days, and who should have authority, during that short space of time, to shoot any one member of the administrative staff.

If this court were sent to the armies every two years, the result would be that everyone would have regard for public opinion, and preserve a certain decency, not only in morals and expenditure, but also in the duties of every day.

Marshal Berwick had a quartermaster hanged because his food supply gave out: and here are we, in the middle of Italy, where there is abundance of everything, spending every month five times as much as we should, and yet constantly going short. But don't think I'm doing nothing about it, or that I'm letting the country down in this all-important part of my functions. Every day I have officials arrested. I go through their papers, examine their accounts. The trouble is, nobody backs me up, and the laws don't give the general in command enough authority to put the fear of God into this horde of scoundrels. However, the evil is lessening, and what with cursing, punishing, and worrying, I hope things will be done a little more decently. But, as I said before, do think over my idea of a syndicature...

Marshal Berwick served with the French in 1707