by Ferdinando Catalano
<< He who does not know where he came from cannot know where he goes, for he does not know where he is.>>.
Thus wrote Otto of Bismarck (Schönhausen, 1 April 1815 – Friedrichsruh, 30 July 1898) regarding the importance of knowing history. Far from a mere succession of events linked together only by the logic of those who observe them and pass them on to posterity, history is a story: spontaneous moments intertwine with unexpected situations to create a tapestry of human nature where the intricate detail of unpredictability links seemingly-disconnected events into a convoluted, but cohesive, whole. Perhaps best exemplified by an ancient English proverb:
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the knight was lost.
For want of a knight, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a nail.
The point holds true often throughout the ages. And while it may not be a nail, the composition of a simple button may have been what thwarted the last true imperial attempt in continental Europe.
Napoleon’s 1812 retreat from Russia had incalculable consequences on Europe’s future geopolitical assets, as well as having marked the point of no return of his military career.
But for the Russians, the Napoleonic retreat had the tone of a war of resistance. The grand ideals of popular struggle against an imperial invader influenced local culture and politics for decades, if not centuries, and profoundly inspired such literature as War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.
THE INVASION OF RUSSIA
It is June 1812. Napoleon Bonaparte is about to invade Russia with an army of 600,000 men. Six months later, in December of the same year, little more than ten thousand soldiers remained of that vast army. The scant few survivors were desperate, exhausted from hunger and cold, and in total disarray.
Why, then, did the army which fancied itself the strongest in the world, which had never known the shame of defeat, get decimated and forced to retreat? One could say “it was the terrible Russian winter” and be partly correct- but not for the reason you’d expect. Perhaps, if Napoleon had spent some time on chemistry as well as strategy, things would have been different.
As strange as it may seem, the dissolution of that entire army may well have been caused by the choice of uniform buttons. At the time, tin buttons were the common standard for coats, jackets, and even trousers. But this simple fact of 1800s life left Napoleon’s vast forces vulnerable to a fatal flaw: the metal itself. When winter comes in Russia, the temperature drops far below zero centigrade.
At those temperatures (we are talking about -13 ° C) tin, which has a solid structure at room temperature, begins to turn into a gray powder and loses its metallic properties.
As an illustration of how widespread and catastrophic this “tin cancer,” as it was known for centuries, could be, this very plague was the downfall of Robert Scott’s attempt to conquer
the South Pole in January of 1911. Food and fuel supplies, stored in tin containers, rotted away and were lost or contaminated. No wonder Scott and his team of scouts never returned home.
Even in the Middle Ages, tin cancer was a known problem. If organ pipes in northern Europe were constructed of tin, it could happen that at low temperatures some began to pulverize. A particularly insidious state of decay, this chemical reaction is self-propagating, so even the surrounding pipes weren’t safe; if dust ended up in the other pipes they became “infected” as well.
And thus, one can imagine the chaos these surreptitious chemical fingers might’ve wrought in the freezing winters of 1812 Russia. The pulverization of the base compound in every button on every soldier must’ve been a dramatic sight to behold. An observer wrote to Borisov that the Napoleonic army seemed to be “like a crowd of ghosts wrapped in female clothes, in old pieces of carpets, or in coats burned and full of holes.”
Perhaps had Russia been his only enemy, Napoleon could have prevailed; almost fitting that in the end, no man was his downfall, but the very air, against which all the brandished muskets and cunning tactics were futile. No one can say for certain how things would have turned out if chemistry had not been against Napoleon. But it does raise some interesting questions:
● Why did Napoleon not know of “tin cancer,” when it was documented centuries prior?
● Were Napoleon’s men, with their uniforms open for lack of adequate buttons, so numbed by the cold that they couldn’t fight?
● Or did they have to use their hands to close their coats or hold their trousers so they couldn’t take up arms?
Crossing the Beresina, defeated and dejected, one can almost imagine Le Grand Empereur’s brooding thoughts: “And all for the want of a button.”