At first glance the lives of Karl Matthew Kafka and George Henry Woehler were not much different than most of the residents of mid-19th century Bethlehem. Both were Germans and Moravians. Kafka was a shoemaker. Woehler’s occupation is unknown, but it was probably a trade. Elderly when they came to Bethlehem, they rest with many of their contemporaries in God’s Acre cemetery. But they were alike in another way, a way that as far as is known no one else in Bethlehem shared. As young men they had marched in the greatest military campaigns of their era, as foot soldiers in the army of Napoleon. Somehow amidst the heroism and carnage they survived to tell their stories. They are not as detailed as historians might like but thanks to Bethlehem’s Moravian Archives their accounts survive from the point of view of those who saw it all from the bottom.
This year France is commemorating Napoleon on the bicentennial of his death. Events around the anniversary have been many. One of the most interesting has to do with the uncovering in 2019 of the remains of French General Charles Etienne Gudin, who is said to have been a favorite of Napoleon. During the ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812, Gudin, age 44, had his leg blown off by a cannon ball and died of gangrene three days later. DNA testing of Gudin’s remains, found underneath an abandoned night club in Smolensk, Russia with those of a descendent, thus confirmed their identity. They were flown to Paris on July 13th where Gudin will be buried near his emperor in Les Invalides, the massive structure that houses Napoleon’s tomb and those of other French military figures.
To the modern mind the question that might be asked first could be, how did two Germans end up fighting under Napoleon? Alas, Kafka and Woehler never directly answer that question. Woehler does imply that when he joined Napoleon in 1807, he was attracted by all the excitement around him as a warrior ruler. As any young man might be, the lure of taking part in great military adventure apparently drew him. Also, nationalism and identity with a country was not strong, particularly in the German states as it would become later. One could be loyal to a ruler or a general rather than a nation. Kafka may also have been motivated by the whole romantic notion when he joined the army of Bonaparte when in 1799 it plunged into the Near East. Or perhaps he just thought it had to be more exciting than repairing shoes.
Almost certainly no one in the French army in the 1790s thought when they designed the uniforms that its soldiers would wear with wool coats, stiff high collars and high plumed hats they would have to wear them in Egypt. But then they had not counted on the ambitious young officer General Bonaparte. He promised an invasion of the region would be the best way to cut off the British from their empire in India. And not incidentally in his own mind, a way to follow in the footsteps of his heroes Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. The government at the time, called the Directory, whose members were hardly unaware of the ambitions of this young man, were also hoping that if nothing else it would keep him far away from Paris and plotting against them.
How much of this was known or even suspected by 29-year-old private Kafka is not recorded. What stood out most in his mind and was deeply remembered by him as he gave his testimony was the so-called Battle of the Pyramids on July 21, 1799. By then Napoleon had already suffered a defeat with failure of his siege of the city of Acre. It was a futile effort thanks to the strong defense of that ancient port city on the Mediterranean. And the defeat of the French fleet in the Battle of the Nile in 1798 by the Royal Navy was a crushing blow. But Bonaparte went on into Egypt.
Starting at 2:00 a.m. and after marching for 12 hours the 25,000 men came within sight of their enemy, the army of 6,000 Mameluke cavalry and 15,000-foot soldiers of Ibrahim Bey, a short distance outside of Cairo. Although nominally under the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the Mamelukes had been the real rulers of Egypt for many years. They were regarded as among some of the toughest warriors around. As the sun rose that morning, fifteen miles in the distance the Pyramids shimmered in the haze. As was his practice, Bonaparte at that moment decided to address his army, something he was extremely good at. Kafka was close enough to hear what he had to say as he gave his command. “Forward!” shouted Bonaparte. “Remember from those monuments yonder 40 centuries look down upon you!” Apparently from his later testimony Kafka recalled that moment and those words for the rest of his life. He would repeat it from memory when he would tell of it in Bethlehem.
Over the years Napoleon’s words almost became a cliché. Nineteenth century history painters liked to show the French troops marching in front of the Pyramids through sand with the Sphinx included for good measure. That did not happen. And there are skeptics who claim that Napoleon’s troops could not possibly have seen those monuments at that distance. The soldier who was there would beg to differ. It was the words not the Pyramids that inspired him and his fellow soldiers. But at that moment private Kafka and his comrades had larger issues to deal with. They gathered into hollow squares, a favored formation. In the center were the officers. Bonaparte was in one of them. At roughly 3:00 p.m. the Mamelukes, a torrent of humanity and horses, charged. Under the disciplined leadership that had made them the best soldiers in Europe, the French awaited the smash. Once the enemy was in range they began firing. The Mamelukes swept around to the rear to give the French a blow from behind. Then as they got closer a howitzer from inside one of the squares fired.
With that the charge was broken. Now cut off from the rest of their army, the desert warriors were driven back to the Nile. An estimated 600 died in the battle that followed and 1,000 drowned in the river. Two days later Napoleon entered Cairo. But in fact, despite his victory in Egypt, Bonaparte’s campaign was a failure. With the British fleet on his heels, he returned to France leaving behind many soldiers dead from battles and disease. How Kafka came out of it all alive and made it back to Europe was a mystery, but he did. As the years went on Napoleon proved himself a much better commander in Europe than he did in the Middle East. After a series of victories throughout the first decade of the 19th century and having declared himself the emperor of France in 1804, he was master of Europe. England continued to be supreme at sea but on land Napoleon was unbeatable.
Where Kafka was in all this is unknown. Did he remain in the French Army, shouting ‘long live the emperor’ with each new conquest, or was it back to the cobbler’s bench? He does not say but later he will enter the picture again.
In 1807, 17-year-old George Henry Woehler decided it was time to leave his home in the German state of Schaumberg-Lippe in what is now north central Germany in search of adventure. By his own admission he was early attracted to the romance of Napoleon’s rise from a poor boy to emperor of France and joined the French army. Woehler describes himself as having fought many battles while maddingly for historians not saying which ones. By 1807 Spain was the place giving Napoleon the biggest headaches. Having invaded that country, he had replaced its corrupt monarch Ferdinand VII with his brother Joseph (who later fled to live in America and paid a visit to Bethlehem) as king. He thought it would be a simple matter.
But instead of embracing the many reforms the French government brought, a guerilla movement, funded and supported by England, sprang up. It seemed that as corrupt as Ferdinand was the Spanish people did not relish having a French ruler. Later when Ferdinand returned, they would rebel against him. Woehler describes one unnamed battle in which he was captured by the British and forced to serve in their army until recaptured by the French whose army he rejoined. The best chance of his having been captured by the British would have been in Spain as it was the only place on land where the nations were in combat.
In 1812 Napoleon decided to launch an invasion of Russia. Hearing of the plans, his former ambassador to Russia, Armand de Caulaincourt, the Duke of Vicenza, was horrified. Confronting Napoleon, he said it was a dangerous step for France. He insisted the emperor was doing it only to satisfy his fondest passion. “What passion is that?” asked the emperor with a laugh. “War, sire,” Caulaincourt replied. With that Napoleon reached down and pulled playfully on the Duke’s ear, a nervous gesture he often made use of when Caulaincourt’s frankness came too close to uncovering his true motivation.
That June of 1812 with an army of 400,000 men that included Kafka, Napoleon marched into Russia. Perhaps Kafka even saw action in the battle where the luckless General Gudin lost his leg and later his life. But though they fought, the Russians were laying a trap into which General Winter won the battle. The Russians refused to surrender, forcing a retreat that was a horror that left the army, as John Quincy Adams, U.S. minister to Russia, wrote home to his father, John Adams, and mother, Abagail, “food for worms.”
Kafka must have heard and seen it all, the screams of the wounded men, the mobs of starving soldiers cutting up half dead horses for food and the intense cold that littered the landscape with hundreds of frozen corpses. Somehow, he survived to return to his cobbler’s bench before he came to America. Woehler, however was to be there at the last act when the English and their Allies finally defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, sending him to exile at St. Helena and Kafka and Woehler eventually to Bethlehem.