The Conscript - A Story of the French war of 1813
by Emile Erckmann
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"Halt! The Prussians are in ambush around us. Look sharp!"

Scarcely had he spoken, when a dozen bullets whistled through the branches, and at the same time, a number of Prussians rose, and plunged deeper into the forest opposite.

"There they go! Forward!" cried Pinto.

But the bullet in my shako had rendered me cautious; it seemed as if I could almost see through the trees, and, as the sergeant started forth into the clearing, I held his arm, pointing out to him the muzzle of a musket peeping out from a bush, not a hundred paces before us. The others, clustering around, saw it too, and Pinto whispered:

"Stay, Bertha; remain here and do not lose sight of him, while we turn the position."

They set off, to the right and left, and I, behind my tree, my piece at my shoulder, waited like a hunter for his game. At the end of two or three minutes, the Prussian, hearing nothing, rose slowly. He was quite a boy, with little blonde mustaches, and a tall, slight, but well-knit figure. I could have killed him as he stood, but the thought of thus slaying a defenceless man froze my blood. Suddenly he saw me, and bounded aside. Then I fired, and breathed more freely as I saw him running, like a stag, toward the wood.

At the same moment, five or six reports rang out to the right and left; the sergeant Zebede, Klipfel, and the rest appeared, and a hundred paces farther on we found the young Prussian upon the ground blood gushing from his mouth. He gazed at us with a scared expression, raising his arms, as if to parry bayonet-thrusts, but the sergeant called gleefully to him:

"Fear nothing! Your account is settled."

No one offered to injure him further; but Klipfel took a beautiful pipe, which was hanging out of his pocket, saying:

"For a long time I have wanted a pipe, and here is a fine one."

"Fusileer Klipfel!" cried Pinto, indignantly, "will you be good enough to put back that pipe? Leave it to the Cossacks to rob the wounded! A French soldier knows only honor!"

Klipfel threw down the pipe and we departed, not one caring to look back at the wounded Prussian. We arrived at the edge of the forest, outside which, among tufted bushes, the Prussians we pursued had taken refuge. We saw them rise to fire upon us, but they immediately lay down again. We might have remained there tranquilly, since we had orders to occupy the wood, and the shots of the Prussians could not hurt us, protected as we were by the trees. On the other side of the slope we heard a terrific battle going on; the thunder of cannon was increasing, it filled the air with one continuous roar. But our officers held a council, and decided that the bushes were a part of the forest, and that the Prussians must be driven from them. This determination cost many a life.

We received orders, then, to drive the enemy's tirailleurs, and as they fired as we came on, we started at a run, so as to be upon them before they could reload. Our officers ran, also full of ardor. We thought the bushes ended at the top of the hill, and that we could sweep off the Prussians by dozens. But scarcely had we arrived, out of breath, upon the ridge, when old Pinto cried:


I looked up, and saw the Colbacks rushing down upon us like a tempest. Scarcely had I seen them, when I began to spring down the hill, going, I verily believe, in spite of weariness and my knapsack, fifteen feet at a bound. I saw before me, Pinto, Zebede, and the others, making their best speed. Behind, on came the hussars, their officers shouting orders in German, their scabbards clanking and horses neighing. The earth shook beneath them.

I took the shortest road to the wood, and had almost reached it, when I came upon one of the trenches where the peasants were in the habit of digging clay for their houses. It was more than twenty feet wide, and forty or fifty long, and the rain had made the sides very slippery; but as I heard the very breathing of the horses behind me, while my hair rose on my head, without thinking of aught else, I sprang forward, and fell upon my face: another fusileer of my company was already there. We rose as soon as we could, and at the same instant two hussars glided down the slippery side of the trench. The first, cursing like a fiend, aimed a sabre-stroke at my poor comrade's head, but as he rose in his stirrups to give force to the blow I buried my bayonet in his side, while the other brought down his blade upon my shoulder with such force, that, were it not for my epaulette, I believe that I had been wellnigh cloven in two. Then he lunged, but as the point of his sabre touched my breast, a bullet from above crashed through his skull. I looked around, and saw one of our men, up to his knees in the clay. He had heard the oaths of the hussars and the neighing of the horses, and had come to the edge of the trench to see what was going on.

"Well, comrade," said he, laughing, "it was about time."

I had not strength to reply, but stood trembling like an aspen leaf. He unfixed his bayonet, and stretched the muzzle of his piece to me to help me out. Then I squeezed his hand, saying:

"You saved my life! What is your name?"

He told me that his name was Jean Pierre Vincent. I have often since thought that I should be only too happy to render that man any service in my power; but two days after, the second battle of Leipzig took place; then the retreat from Hanau began, and I never saw him again.

Sergeant Pinto and Zebede came up a moment after. Zebede said:

"We have escaped once more, Joseph, and now we are the only Phalsbourg men in the battalion. Klipfel was sabred by the hussars."

"Did you see him?" I cried.

"Yes; he received over twenty wounds, and kept calling to me for aid." Then, after a moment's pause, he added, "O Joseph! it is terrible to hear the companion of your childhood calling for help, and not be able to give it! But they were too many. They surrounded him on all sides."

The thoughts of home rushed upon both our minds. I thought I could see grandmother Klipfel when she would learn the news, and this made me think too of Catharine.

From the time of the charge of the hussars until night, the battalion remained in the same position, skirmishing with the Prussians. We kept them from occupying the wood; but they prevented us from ascending to the ridge. The next day we knew why. The hill commanded the entire course of the Partha, and the fierce cannonade we heard came from Dombrowski's division, which was attacking the Prussian left wing, in order to aid General Marmont at Mockern, where twenty thousand French, posted in a ravine, were holding eighty thousand of Bluecher's troops in check; while toward Wachau a hundred and fifteen thousand French were engaged with two hundred thousand Austrians and Russians. More than fifteen hundred cannon were thundering at once. Our poor little fusillade was like the humming of a bee in a storm, and we sometimes ceased firing, on both sides, to listen. It seemed as if some supernatural, infernal battle were going on; the air was filled with smoke; the earth trembled beneath our feet: our soldiers like Pinto declared they had never seen anything like it.

About six o'clock, a staff-officer brought orders to Colonel Lorain, and immediately after a retreat was sounded. The battalion had lost sixty men by the charge of Russian hussars and the musketry.

It was night when we left the forest, and on the banks of the Partha—among caissons, wagons, retreating divisions, ambulances filled with wounded, all defiling over the two bridges—we had to wait more than two hours for our turn to cross. The heavens were black; the artillery still growled afar off, but the three battles were ended. We heard that we had beaten the Austrians and the Russians at Wachau, on the other side of Leipzig; but our men returning from Mockern were downcast and gloomy; not a voice cried Vive l'Empereur! as after a victory.

Once on the other side of the river, the battalion proceeded down the Partha a good half-league, as far as the village of Schoenfeld; the night was damp; we marched along heavily, our muskets on our shoulders, our heads bent down, and our eyes closing for want of sleep.

Behind us the great column of cannon, caissons, baggage-wagons and troops retreating from Mockern filled the air with a hoarse murmur, and from time to time the cries of the artillerymen and teamsters, shouting to make room, arose above the tumult. But these noises insensibly grew less, and we at length reached a burial-ground, where we were ordered to stack arms and break ranks.

By this time the sky had cleared, and I recognized Schoenfeld in the moonlight. How often had I eaten bread and drank white wine with Zimmer there at the Golden Sheaf, when the sun shone brightly and the leaves were green around! But those times had passed!

Sentries were posted, and a few men went to the village for wood and provisions. I sat against the cemetery wall, and at length fell asleep. About three o'clock in the morning, I was awoke.

It was Zebede. "Joseph," said he, "come to the fire. If you remain here, you run the risk of catching the fever."

I arose, sick with fatigue and suffering. A fine rain filled the air. My comrade drew me toward the fire, which smoked in the drizzling atmosphere; it seemed to give out no heat; but Zebede having made me drink a draught of brandy I felt at least less cold, and gazed at the bivouac fires on the other side of the Partha.

"The Prussians are warming themselves in our wood," said Zebede.

"Yes," I replied; "and poor Klipfel is there too, but he no longer feels the cold."

My teeth chattered. These words saddened us both. A few moments after Zebede resumed:

"Do you remember, Joseph, the black ribbon he wore the day of the conscription, and how he cried, 'we are all condemned to death, like those gone to Russia? I want a black ribbon. We must wear our own mourning!' And his little brother said: 'No, no, Jacob, I do not want it!' and wept! but Klipfel put on the black ribbon notwithstanding; he saw the hussars in his dreams."

As Zebede spoke, I recalled those things, and I saw too that wretch Pinacle on the Town Hall Square, calling me and shaking a black ribbon over his head: "Ha, cripple! you must have a fine ribbon; the ribbon of those who win!"

This remembrance, together with the cold, which seemed to freeze the very marrow in our bones, made me shudder. I thought Pinacle was right; that I had seen the last of home. I thought of Catharine, of Aunt Gredel, of good Monsieur Goulden, and I cursed those who had forced me from them.

At daybreak, wagons arrived with food and brandy for us; the rain had ceased; we made soup, but nothing could warm me; I had caught the fever; within I was cold while my body burned. I was not the only one in the battalion in that condition; three-fourths of the men were suffering from it: and, for a month before, those who could no longer march had lain down by the roadside weeping and calling upon their mothers like little children. Hunger, forced marches, the rain, and grief had done their work, and happy was it for the parents that they could not see their cherished sons perishing along the road; it would be too fearful; many would think there was no mercy in earth or heaven.

As the light increased, we saw to the left, on the other side of the river—and of a great ravine filled with willows and aspens—burnt villages, heaps of dead, abandoned wagons, broken caissons, dismounted cannon and ravaged fields stretched as far as the eye could reach on the Halle, Lindenthal and Doelitch roads. It was worse than at Lutzen. We saw the Prussians deploy, and advance their thousands over the battle-field. They were to join with the Russians and Austrians and close the great circle around us, and we could not prevent them, especially as Bernadotte and the Russian General Beningsen had come up with twenty thousand fresh troops. Thus, after fighting three battles in one day, were we, only one hundred and thirty thousand strong, seemingly about to be entrapped in the midst of three hundred thousand bayonets, not to speak of fifty thousand horse and twelve hundred cannon.

From Schoenfeld, the battalion started to rejoin the division at Kohlgarten. All the roads were lined with slow-moving ambulances, filled with wounded; all the wagons of the country around had been impressed for this service; and, in the intervals between them, marched hundreds of poor fellows with their arms in slings, or their heads bandaged—pale, crestfallen, half dead. All who could drag themselves along kept out of the ambulances, but tried nevertheless to reach a hospital. We made our way, with a thousand difficulties, through this mass, when, near Kohlgarten, twenty hussars, galloping at full speed, and with levelled pistols, drove back the crowd, right and left, into the fields, shouting, as they pressed on:

"The Emperor! the Emperor!"

The battalion drew up, and presented arms; and a few moments after, the mounted grenadiers of the guard—veritable giants, with their great boots, their immense bear-skin hats, descending to their shoulders and only allowing their mustaches, nose, and eyes to remain visible—passed at a gallop. Our men looked joyfully at them, glad that such robust warriors were on our side.

Scarcely had they passed, when the staff tore after. Imagine a hundred and fifty to two hundred marshals, generals, and other superior officers, mounted on magnificent steeds, and so covered with embroidery that the color of their uniforms was scarcely visible; some tall, thin, and haughty; others short, thick-set, and red-faced; others again young and handsome, sitting like statues in their saddles; all with eager look and flashing eyes. It was a magnificent and terrible sight.

But the most striking figure among those captains, who for twenty years had made Europe tremble, was Napoleon himself, with his old hat and gray overcoat; his large, determined chin and neck buried between his shoulders. All shouted "Vive l'Empereur!" but he heard nothing of it. He paid no more attention to us than to the drizzling rain which filled the air, but gazed with contracted brows at the Prussian army stretching along the Partha to join the Austrians. So I saw him on that day and so he remains in my memory. The battalion had been on the march for a quarter of an hour, when at length Zebede said:

"Did you see him, Joseph?"

"I did," I replied; "I saw him well, and I will remember the sight all my life."

"It is strange," said my comrade; "he does not seem to be pleased. At Wurschen, the day after the battle, he seemed rejoiced to hear our 'Vive l'Empereur!' and the generals all wore merry faces too. To-day they seem savage, and nevertheless the captain said that we bore off the victory on the other side of Leipzig."

Others thought the same thing without speaking of it, but there was a growing uneasiness among all.

We found the regiment bivouacked near Kohlgarten. In every direction camp-fires were rolling their smoke to the sky. A drizzling rain continued to fall, and the men, seated on their knapsacks around the fires, seemed depressed and gloomy. The officers formed groups of their own. On all sides it was whispered that such a war had never before been seen; it was one of extermination; that it did not help us to defeat the enemy, for they only desired to kill us off, knowing that they had four or five times our number of men, and would finally remain masters.

They said, too, that the Emperor had won the battle at Wachau, against the Austrians and Russians; but that the victory was useless, because they did not retreat, but stood awaiting masses of reinforcements. On the side of Mockern we knew that we had lost, in spite of Marmont's splendid defence; the enemy had crushed us beneath the weight of their numbers. We only had one real advantage that day on our side; that was keeping our line of retreat on Erfurt: for Giulay had not been able to seize the bridges of the Elster and Pleisse. All the army, from the simple soldier to the marshal, thought that we would have to retreat as soon as possible, and that our position was of the worst; unfortunately the Emperor thought otherwise, and we had to remain.

All day on the seventeenth we lay in our position without firing a shot. A few spoke of the arrival of General Regnier with sixteen thousand Saxons; but the defection of the Bavarians taught us what confidence we could put in our allies.

Toward evening of the next day, we discovered the army of the north on the plateau of Breitenfeld. This was sixty thousand more men for the enemy. I can yet hear the maledictions levelled at Bernadotte—the cries of indignation of those who knew him as a simple officer in the army of the Republic, who cried out that he owed us all—that we made him a king with our blood, and that he now came to give us the finishing blow.

That night, a general movement rearward was made; our lines drew closer and closer around Leipzig; then all became quiet. But this did not prevent our reflecting; on the contrary, every one thought, in the silence:

"What will to-morrow bring forth? Shall I at this hour see the moon rising among the clouds as I now see her? Will the stars yet shine for me to see?"

And when, in the dim night, we gazed at the circle of fire which for nearly six leagues stretched around us, we cried within ourselves:

"Now indeed the world is against us; all nations demand our extermination; they want no more of our glory!"

But we remembered that we had the honor of bearing the name of Frenchmen, and must conquer or die.


In the midst of such thoughts, day broke. Nothing was stirring yet, and Zebede said:

"What a chance for us, if the enemy should fear to attack us!"

The officers spoke of an armistice; but suddenly about nine o'clock, our couriers came galloping in, crying that the enemy was moving his whole line down upon us, and directly after we heard cannon on our right, along the Elster. We were already under arms, and set out across the fields toward the Partha to return to Schoenfeld. The battle had begun.

On the hills overlooking the river, two or three divisions, with batteries in the intervals, and cannon at the flanks, awaited the enemy's approach; beyond, over the points of their bayonets, we could see the Prussians, the Swedes, and the Russians, advancing on all sides in deep, never-ending masses. Shortly after, we took our place in line, between two hills, and then we saw five or six thousand Prussians crossing the river, and all together shouting, "Vaterland! Vaterland!" This caused a tremendous tumult, like that of clouds of rooks flying north.

At the same instant the musketry opened from both sides of the river. The valley through which the Partha flows was filled with smoke; the Prussians were already upon us—we could see their furious eyes and wild looks; they seemed like savage beasts rushing down on us. Then but one shout of "Vive l'Empereur!" smote the sky and we dashed forward. The shock was terrible; thousands of bayonets crossed; we drove them back, were ourselves driven back; muskets were clubbed; the opposing ranks were confounded and mingled in one mass; the fallen were trampled upon, while the thunder of artillery, the whistling of bullets, and the thick white smoke enclosing all, made the valley seem the pit of hell, peopled by contending demons. Despair urged us, and the wish to revenge our deaths before yielding up our lives. The pride of boasting that they once defeated Napoleon incited the Prussians; for they are the proudest of men, and their victories at Gross-Beeren and Katzbach had made them fools. But the river swept away them and their pride! Three times they crossed and rushed at us. We were indeed forced back by the shock of their numbers, and how they shouted then! They seemed to wish to devour us. Their officers, waving their swords in the air, cried, "Vorwaertz! Vorwaertz!" and all advanced like a wall, with the greatest courage—that we cannot deny. Our cannon opened huge gaps in their lines; still they pressed on; but at the top of the hill we charged again, and drove them to the river. We would have massacred them to a man, were it not for one of their batteries before Mockern, which enfiladed us and forced us to give up the pursuit.

This lasted until two o'clock; half our officers were killed or wounded; the colonel, Lorain, was among the first, and the commandant, Gemeau, the latter; all along the river side were heaps of dead, or wounded men crawling away from the struggle. Some, furious, would rise to their knees to fire a last shot or deliver a final bayonet-thrust. Never was anything seen like it. In the river floated long lines of corpses, some showing their faces, others their backs, others their feet. They followed each other like rafts of wood, and no one paid the least attention to the sight—no one of us knew that the same might not be his condition at any minute.

The carnage reached from Schoenfeld to Grossdorf, along the Partha.

At length the Swedes and Prussians ceased their attacks, and started farther up the river to turn our position, and masses of Russians came to occupy the places they had left.

The Russians formed in two columns, and descended to the valley, with shouldered arms, in admirable order. Twice they assailed us with the greatest bravery, but without uttering wild beasts' cries, like the Prussians. Their cavalry attempted to carry the old bridge above Schoenfeld, and the cannonade increased. On all sides, as far as eye could reach, we saw only the enemy massing their forces, and when we had repulsed one of their columns, another of fresh men took its place. The fight had ever to be fought over again.

Between two and three o'clock, we learned that the Swedes and the Prussian cavalry had crossed the river above Grossdorf, and were about to take us in the rear, a mode which pleased them much better than fighting face to face. Marshal Ney immediately changed front, throwing his right wing to the rear. Our division still remained supported on Schoenfeld, but all the others retired from the Partha, to stretch along the plain, and the entire army formed but one line around Leipzig.

The Russians, behind the road to Mockern, prepared for a third attack toward three o'clock; our officers were making new dispositions to receive them; when a sort of shudder ran from one end of our lines to the other, and in a few moments all knew that the sixteen thousand Saxons and the Wurtemberg cavalry, in our very centre, had passed over to the enemy, and that on their way they had the infamy to turn the forty guns they carried with them, on their old brothers-in-arms of Durutte's division.

This treason, instead of discouraging us, so added to our fury, that if we had been allowed, we would have crossed the river to massacre them. They say that they were defending their country. It is false! They had only to have left us on the Duben road; why did they not go then? They might have done like the Bavarians and quitted us before the battle; they might have remained neutral—might have refused to serve; but they deserted us only because fortune was against us. If they knew we were going to win, they would have continued our very good friends, so that they might have their share of the spoil or glory—as after Jena and Friedland. This is what every one thought, and it is why those Saxons are, and will ever remain, traitors: not only did they abandon their friends in distress, but they murdered them, to make a welcome with the enemy. God is just. And so great was their new allies' scorn of them, that they divided half Saxony between themselves after the battle. The French might well laugh at Prussian, Austrian, and Russian gratitude.

From the time of this desertion until evening, it was a war of vengeance that we carried on; the allies might crush us by numbers, but they should pay dearly for their victory!

At nightfall, while two thousand pieces of artillery were thundering together, we were attacked for the seventh time in Schoenfeld. The Russians on one side and the Prussians on the other poured in upon us. We defended every house. In every lane the walls crumbled beneath the bullets, and roofs fell in on every side. There were now no shouts as at the beginning of the battle; all were cool and pale with rage. The officers had collected scattered muskets and cartridge-boxes, and now loaded and fired like the men. We defended the gardens, too, and the cemetery, where we had bivouacked, until there were more dead above than beneath the soil. Every inch of earth cost a life.

It was night when Marshal Ney brought up a reinforcement—whence I knew not. It was what remained of Ricard's division and Souham's Second. The debris of our regiments united, and hurled the Russians to the other side of the old bridge, which no longer had a rail, that having been swept away by the shot. Six twelve-pounders were posted on the bridge and maintained a fire for one hour longer. The remainder of the battalion, and of some others in our rear, supported the guns; and I remember how their flashes lit up the forms of men and horses, heaped beneath the dark arches. The sight lasted only a moment, but it was a horrible moment indeed!

At half-past seven, masses of cavalry advanced on our left, and we saw them whirling about two large squares, which slowly retired. Then we received orders to retreat. Not more than two or three thousand men remained at Schoenfeld with the six pieces of artillery. We reached Kohlgarten without being pursued, and were to bivouac around Rendnitz. Zebede was yet living, and, as we marched on, listening to the cannonade, which continued, despite the darkness, along the Elster, he said, suddenly:

"How is it that we are here, Joseph, when so many thousand others that stood by our side are dead? It seems as if we bore charmed lives, and could not die."

I made no reply.

"Think you there was ever before such a battle?" he asked. "No, it cannot be. It is impossible."

It was indeed a battle of giants. From ten in the morning until seven in the evening, we had held our own against three hundred and sixty thousand men, without, at night, having lost an inch: and, nevertheless, we were but a hundred and thirty thousand. God keep me from speaking ill of the Germans. They were fighting for the independence of their country. But they might do better than celebrate the anniversary of the battle of Leipzig every year. There is not much to boast of in fighting an enemy three to one.

Approaching Rendnitz, we marched over heaps of dead. At every step we encountered dismounted cannon, broken caissons, and trees cut down by shot. There a division of the Young Guard and the mounted grenadiers, led by Napoleon himself, had repulsed the Swedes who were advancing into the breach made by the treachery of the Saxons. Two or three burning houses lit up the scene. The mounted grenadiers were yet at Rendnitz, but crowds of disbanded troops were passing up and down the street. No rations had been distributed, and all were seeking something to eat and drink.

As we defiled by a large house, we saw behind the wall of a court two cantinieres, who were giving the soldiers drink from their wagons. There were there chasseurs, cuirassiers, lancers, hussars, infantry of the line and of the guard, all mingled together, with torn uniforms, broken shakos, and plumeless helmets, and all seemingly famished.

Two or three dragoons stood on the wall near a pot of burning pitch, their arms crossed on their long white cloaks, covered from head to foot with blood, like butchers.

Zebede, without speaking, pushed me with his elbow, and we entered the court, while the others pursued their way. It took us full a quarter of an hour to reach one of the wagons. I held up a crown of six livres, and the cantiniere, kneeling behind her cask, handed me a large glass of brandy and a piece of white bread, at the same time taking my money. I drank and passed the glass to Zebede, who emptied it. We had as much difficulty in getting out of the crowd as in entering. Hard, famished faces and cavernous eyes were on all sides of us. No one moved willingly. Each thought only of himself, and cared not for his neighbor. They had escaped a thousand deaths to-day only to dare a thousand more to-morrow. Well might they mutter, "Every one for himself, and God for us all."

As we went through the village street, Zebede said, "You have bread?"


I broke it in two, and gave him half. We began to eat, at the same time hastening on. We heard distant firing. At the end of twenty minutes we had overtaken the rear of the column, and recognized the battalion of Captain Adjutant-Major Vidal, who was marching near it. We had taken our places in the ranks before any one noticed our absence.

The nearer we approached the city the more detachments, cannon and baggage we encountered hastening to Leipzig.

Toward ten o'clock we passed through the faubourg of Rendnitz. The general of brigade, Fournier, took command of us and ordered us to oblique to the left. At midnight we arrived at the long promenades which border the Pleisse, and halted under the old leafless lindens, and stacked arms. A long line of fires flickered in the fog as far as Randstadt; and, when the flames burnt high, they threw a glare on groups of Polish lancers, lines of horses, cannon, and wagons, while, at intervals beyond, sentinels stood like statues in the mist. A heavy, hollow sound arose from the city, and mingled with the rolling of our trains over the bridge at Lindenau. It was the beginning of the retreat.

Then every one put his knapsack at the foot of a tree and stretched himself on the ground, his arm under his head. A quarter of an hour after all were sleeping.


What occurred until daybreak I know not. Baggage, wounded, and prisoners doubtless continued to crowd across the bridge. But then a terrific shock woke us all. We started up, thinking the enemy were upon us, when two officers of hussars came galloping in with the news that a powder wagon had exploded by accident in the grand avenue of Randstadt, at the river-side. The dark, red smoke rolled up to the sky, and slowly disappeared, while the old houses continued to shake as if an earthquake were rolling by.

Quiet was soon restored. Some lay down to sleep: but it was growing lighter every minute; and, glancing toward the river, I saw our troops extending until lost in the distance along the five bridges of the Elster and Pleisse, which follow, one after another, and make, so to speak, but one. Thousands of men must defile over this bridge, and, of necessity, take time in doing so. And the idea struck every one that it would have been much better to have thrown several bridges across the two rivers; for at any instant the enemy might attack us, and then retreat would have become difficult indeed. But the Emperor had forgotten to give the order, and no one dared do anything without orders. Not a marshal of France would have dared to take it upon himself to say that two bridges were better than one. To such a point had the terrible discipline of Napoleon reduced those old captains! They obeyed like machines, and disturbed themselves about nothing. Such was their fear of displeasing their master.

As I gazed at that bridge, which seemed endless, I thought, "Heaven grant that they may let us cross now, for we have had enough of battles and carnage! Once on the other side and we are on the road to France, indeed, and I may again see Catharine, Aunt Gredel, and Father Goulden!" So thinking, I grew sad; I gazed at the thousands of artillerymen and baggage-guards swarming over the bridge, and saw the tall bear-skin shakos of the Old Guard, who stood with shouldered arms immovable on the hill of Lindenau on the other side of the river—and as I thought they were fairly on their way to France, how I longed to be in their place! Zebede, through whose mind the same thoughts were running, said:

"Hey! Joseph; if we were only there!"

But I felt bitterly, indeed, when, about seven o'clock, three wagons came to distribute provisions and ammunition among us, and it became evident that we were to become the rear-guard. In spite of my hunger, I felt like throwing my bread against a wall. A few moments after, two squadrons of Polish lancers appeared coming up the bank, and behind them five or six generals, Poniatowski among the number. He was a man of about fifty, tall, slight, and with a melancholy expression. He passed without looking at us. General Fournier, who now commanded our brigade, spurred from among his staff, and cried:

"By file, left!"

I never so felt my heart sink. I would have sold my life for two farthings; but nevertheless, we had to move on, and turn our backs to the bridge.

We soon arrived at a place called Hinterthor—an old gate on the road to Caunewitz. To the right and left stretched ancient ramparts, and behind, rows of houses. We were posted in covered roads, near this gate, which the sappers had strongly barricaded. Captain Vidal then commanded the battalion, reduced to three hundred and twenty-five men. A few worm-eaten palisades served us for intrenchments, and, on all the roads before us, the enemy were advancing. This time they wore white coats and flat caps, with a raised piece in front, on which we could see the two-headed eagle of the kreutzers. Old Pinto, who recognized them at once, cried:

"Those fellows are the kaiserliks! We have beaten them fifty times since 1793; but if the father of Marie Louise had a heart, they would be with us now instead of against us."

For some moments a cannonade had been going on at the other side of the city, where Bluecher was attacking the faubourg of Halle.

Soon after, the firing stretched along to the right; it was Bernadotte attacking the faubourg of Kohlgartenthor, and at the same time the first shells of the Austrians fell in our covered ways; they followed in file; many passing over Hinterthor, burst in the houses and the streets of the faubourg.

At nine o'clock the Austrians formed their columns of attack on the Caunewitz road, and poured down on us from all sides. Nevertheless we held our own until about ten o'clock, and then were forced back to the old ramparts, through the breaches of which the Kaiserliks pursued us under the cross-fire of the Fourteenth and Twenty-ninth of the line. The poor Austrians were not inspired with the fury of the Prussians, but nevertheless, showed a true courage; for, at half-past ten they had won the ramparts, and although, from all the neighboring windows, we kept up a deadly fire, we could not force them back. Six months before it would have horrified me to think of men being thus slaughtered, but now I was as insensible as any old soldier, and the death of one man or of a hundred would not cost me a thought.

Until this time all had gone well, but how were we to get out of the houses? Unless we climbed on the roof, retreat was no longer possible. This again was one of those terrible moments I shall never forget. All at once the idea struck me that we should be caught like foxes which they smoke in their holes. The enemy held every avenue. I went to a window in the rear, and saw that it looked out on a yard, and that the yard had no gate except in front. I thought it not unlikely that the Austrians, in revenge for the loss we had inflicted upon them, might put us to the point of the bayonet. It would have been natural enough. Thinking thus, I ran back to a room, where a dozen of us yet remained, and there I saw Sergeant Pinto leaning against the wall, his arms hanging by his sides, and his face as white as paper. He had just received a bullet in the breast, but the old man's warrior soul was still strong within him, as he cried:

"Defend yourselves, conscripts! Defend yourselves! Show the Kaiserliks that a French soldier is yet worth four of them! ah the villains!"

We heard the sound of blows on the door below thundering like cannon-shot. We still kept up our fire, but hopelessly, when we heard the clatter of hoofs without. The firing ceased, and we saw through the smoke four squadrons of lancers dashing like a troop of lions through the midst of the Austrians. All yielded before them. The Kaiserliks fled, but the long, blue lances, with their red pennons, were swifter than they, and many a white coat was pierced from behind. The lancers were Poles—the most terrible warriors I have ever seen, and, to speak truth, our friends, and our brothers. They never turned from us in our hour of need; they gave us the last drop of their blood. And what have we done for their unhappy country? When I think of our ingratitude, my heart bleeds. The Poles rescued us. Seeing them so proud and brave, we rushed out, attacking the Austrians with the bayonet, and driving them into the trenches. We were for the time victorious, but it was time to beat a retreat, for the enemy were already filling Leipzig; the gates of Halle and Grimma were forced, and that of Peters-Thau delivered up by our friends the Badeners and our other friends the Saxons. Soldiers, citizens, and students kept up a fire from the windows, on our retiring troops.

We had only time to re-form and take the road along the Pleisse; the lancers awaited us there: we defiled behind them, and, as the Austrians again pressed around us, they charged once more to drive them back. What brave fellows and magnificent horsemen were those Poles! How those who saw them charge—in such a moment—must admire them!

The division, reduced from fifteen to eight thousand men, retired step by step before fifty thousand foes, and not without often turning and replying to the Austrian fire.

We neared the bridge—with what joy, I need not say. But it was no easy task to reach it, for infantry and horse crowded the whole width of the avenue, and continued to come from all the neighboring roads, until the crowd formed an impenetrable mass, which advanced slowly, with groans and smothered cries, which might be heard at a distance of half a mile, despite the rattling of musketry. Woe to those upon the sides of the bridge! they were forced into the water and no one stretched a hand to save them. In the middle, men and even horses were carried along with the crowd; they had no need of making any exertion of their own. But how were we to get there? The enemy were advancing nearer and nearer every moment. It is true we had stationed a few cannon so as to sweep the principal approaches, and some troops yet remained in line to repulse their attacks, but they had guns to sweep the bridge, and those who remained behind must receive their whole fire. This accounted for the press on the bridge.

At two or three hundred paces from the bridge, the idea of rushing forward and throwing myself into the midst of the crowd, entered my mind; but Captain Vidal, Lieutenant Bretonville, and other old officers said:

"Shoot down the first man that leaves the ranks!"

It was horrible to be so near safety, and yet unable to escape.

This was between eleven and twelve o'clock. The fusillade grew nearer on the right and left, and a few bullets began to whistle over our heads. From the side of Halle we saw the Prussians rush pellmell out with our own soldiers. Terrible cries now arose from the bridge. Cavalry, to make way for themselves, sabred the infantry, who replied with the bayonet. It was a general sauve qui peut. At every movement of the crowd, some one fell from the bridge, and, trying to regain his place, dragged five or six with him into the water.

In the midst of this horrible confusion, this pandemonium of shouts, cries, groans, musket-shots, and sabre-strokes, a crash like a peal of thunder was heard, and the first arch of the bridge rose upward into the air with all upon it.

Hundreds of wretches were torn to pieces, and hundreds of others were crushed beneath the falling ruins.

A sapper had blown up the arch!

At this sight, the cry of treason rang from mouth to mouth. "We are lost—betrayed!" was now the cry on all sides. The tumult was fearful. Some, in the rage of despair, turned upon the enemy like wild beasts at bay, thinking only of vengeance; others broke their arms, cursing heaven and earth for their misfortunes. Mounted officers and generals dashed into the river to cross it by swimming, and many soldiers followed them without taking time to throw off their knapsacks. The thought that the last hope of safety was gone, and nothing now remained but to be massacred, made men mad. I had seen the Partha choked with dead bodies the day before, but this scene was a thousand times more horrible; drowning wretches dragging down those who happened to be near them; shrieks and yells of rage, or for help; a broad river concealed by a mass of heads and struggling arms.

Captain Vidal, who, by his coolness and steady eye, had hitherto kept us to our duty, even Captain Vidal now appeared discouraged. He thrust his sabre into the scabbard, and cried, with a strange laugh:

"The game is up! Let us be gone!"

I touched his arm; he looked sadly and kindly at me.

"What do you wish, my child?" he asked.

"Captain," said I, "I was four months in the hospital at Leipzig: I have bathed in the Elster, and I know a ford."


"Ten minutes' march above the bridge."

He drew his sabre at once from its sheath, and shouted:

"Follow me, my boys, and you, Bertha, lead."

The entire battalion, which did not now number more than two hundred men, followed; a hundred others, who saw us start confidently forward, joined us without knowing where we were going. The Austrians were already on the terrace of the avenue; farther down, gardens, separated by hedges, stretched to the Elster. I recognized the road which Zimmer and I had traversed so often in July, when the ground was covered with flowers. The enemy fired on us, but we did not reply. I entered the water first; Captain Vidal next, then the others, two abreast. It reached our shoulders, for the river was swollen by the autumn rains; but we crossed, notwithstanding, without the loss of a man. Nearly all of us had our muskets when we reached the other bank, and we pressed onward across the fields, and soon reached the little wooden bridge at Schleissig, and thence turned to Lindenau.

We marched silently, turning from time to time to gaze on the other side of the Elster, where the battle still raged in the streets of Leipzig. The furious shouts, and the deep boom of cannon still reached our ears; and it was only when, about two o'clock, we overtook the long column which stretched, till lost in the distance, on the road to Erfurt, that the sounds of conflict were lost in the roll of wagons and artillery trains.


Hitherto I have described the grandeur of war—battles glorious to France, notwithstanding our mistakes and misfortunes. When we were fighting all Europe alone, always one against two, and often one to three; when we finally succumbed, not through the courage of our foes, but borne down by treason, and the weight of numbers, we had no reason to blush for our defeat, and the victors have little reason to exult in it. It is not numbers that makes the glory of a people or an army—it is virtue and bravery. This is what I think in all sincerity, and I believe that right feeling, sensible men in every country will think the same.

But now I must relate the horrors of retreat, and this is the hardest part of my task. It is said that confidence gives strength, and this is especially true of the French. While they advanced in full hope of victory, they were united; the will of their chiefs was their only law; they knew that they could succeed only by strict observance of discipline. But when driven back, no one had confidence save in himself, and commands were forgotten. Then these men—once so brave and so proud, who marched so gayly to the fight—scattered to right and left; sometimes fleeing alone, sometimes in groups. Then those who, a little while before, trembled at their approach, grew bold; they came on, first timidly, but, meeting no resistance, became insolent. Then they would swoop down and carry off three or four laggards at a time, as I have seen crows in winter swoop upon a fallen horse, which they did not dare approach while he could yet remain on his feet.

I have seen miserable Cossacks—very beggars, with nothing but old rags hanging around them; an old cap of tattered skin over their ears; unshorn beards, covered with vermin; mounted on old worn-out horses, without saddles, and with only a piece of rope by way of stirrups, an old rusty pistol all their fire-arms, and a nail at the end of a pole for a lance; I have seen those wretches, who resembled sallow and decrepit Jews more than soldiers, stop ten, fifteen, twenty of our men, and lead them off like sheep.

And the tall, lank peasants, who, a few months before, trembled if we only looked at them—I have seen them arrogantly repulse old soldiers—cuirassiers, artillerymen, dragoons who had fought through the Spanish war, men who could have crushed them with a blow of their fist; I have seen these peasants insist that they had no bread to sell, while the odor of the oven arose on all sides of us; that they had no wine, no beer, when we heard glasses clinking to right and left. And no one dared punish them; no one dared take what he wanted from the wretches who laughed to see us in such straits, for each one was retreating on his own account; we had no leaders, no discipline, and they could easily out-number us.

And to hunger, misery, weariness, and fever, the horrors of an approaching winter were added. The rain never ceased falling from the gray sky, and the winds pierced us to the bones. How could poor beardless conscripts, mere shadows, fleshless and worn out, endure all this? They perished by thousands; their bodies covered the roads. The terrible typhus pursued us. Some said it was a plague, engendered by the dead not being buried deep enough; others, that it was the consequence of sufferings that required more than human strength to bear. I know not how this may be, but the villages of Alsace and Lorraine, to which we brought it, will long remember their sufferings; of a hundred attacked by it, not more than ten or twelve, at the most, recovered.

At length—since I must continue this sad story—on the evening of the nineteenth, we bivouacked at Lutzen, where our regiments re-formed as best they might. The next day early, as we marched on Weissenfels, we had to skirmish with the Westphalians, who followed us as far as the village of Eglaystadt. The twenty-second we bivouacked on the glacis at Erfurt, where we received new shoes and uniforms. Five or six disbanded companies joined our battalion—nearly all conscripts. Our new coats and shoes were much too large for us; but they were warm; we felt like new men.

We had to start again the twenty-second, and the following days passed near Goetha, Teitlobe, Eisenach and Salminster. The Cossacks reconnoitred us from a distance. Our hussars would drive them off; but they returned the moment pursuit was relaxed. Many of our men went pillaging in the night, and were absent at roll-call, and the sentries received orders to shoot all who attempted to leave their bivouacs.

I had had the fever ever since we left Leipzig; it increased day by day, and I became so weak that I could scarcely rise in the mornings to follow the march. Zebede looked sadly at me, and sometimes said:

"Courage, Joseph! We will soon be at home!"

These words reanimated me; I felt my face flush.

"Yes, yes!" I said; "we will soon be home; I must see home once more!"

The tears forced themselves to my eyes. Zebede carried knapsack when I was tired, and continued:

"Lean on my arm. We are getting nearer every day, now, Joseph. A few dozen leagues are nothing."

My heart beat more bravely, but my strength was gone. I could no longer carry my musket; it was heavy as lead. I could not eat; my knees trembled beneath me; still I did not despair, but kept murmuring to myself: "This is nothing. When you see the clock-tower of Phalsbourg your fever will leave you. You will have good air, and Catharine will nurse you. All will yet be well!"

Others, no worse than I, fell by the roadside, but still I toiled on; when near Folde, we learned that fifty thousand Bavarians were posted in the forests through which we were to pass, for the purpose of cutting off our retreat. This was my finishing stroke, for I knew I could no longer load, fire, or defend myself with the bayonet. I felt that all my sufferings to get so far toward home were useless. Nevertheless, I made an effort, when we were ordered to march, and tried to rise.

"Come, come, Joseph!" said Zebede; "courage!"

But I could not move, and lay sobbing like a child.

"Come, stand up!" he said.

"I cannot. O God! I cannot!"

I clutched his arm. Tears streamed down his face. He tried to lift me, but he was too weak; I held fast to him, crying:

"Zebede, do not abandon me!"

Captain Tidal approached, and gazed sadly on me.

"Cheer up, my lad," said he; "the ambulances will be along in half an hour."

But I knew what that meant, and I drew Zebede closer to me. He embraced me, and I whispered in his ear:

"Kiss Catharine for me—promise! Tell her that I died thinking of her, and bear her my last farewell!"

"Yes, yes!" he sobbed. "My poor Joseph!"

I could cling to him no longer. He placed me on the ground, and ran away without turning his head. The column departed, and I gazed at it as one who sees his last hope fading from his eyes. The last of the battalion disappeared over the ridge of a hill. I closed my eyes. An hour passed, or perhaps a longer time, when the boom of cannon startled me, and I saw a division of the guard pass at a quick step with artillery and wagons. Seeing some sick in the wagons, I cried, wistfully:

"Take me! Take me!"

But no one listened; still they kept on, while the thunder of artillery grew louder and louder. More than ten thousand men, cavalry and infantry, passed me, but I had no longer strength to call out to them.

At last the long line ended; I saw knapsacks and shakos disappear behind the hill, and I lay down to sleep forever, when once more I was aroused by the rolling of five or six pieces of artillery along the road. The cannoneers sat sabre in hand, and behind came the caissons. I hoped no more from these than from the others, when suddenly I perceived a tall, lean, red-bearded veteran mounted beside one of the pieces, and bearing the cross upon his breast. It was my old friend Zimmer, my old comrade of Leipzig. He was passing without seeing me, when I cried, with all the strength that remained to me:

"Christian! Christian!"

He heard me in spite of the noise of the guns; stopped, and turned round.

"Christian!" I cried, "take pity on me!"

He saw me lying at the foot of a tree, and came to me with a pale face and staring eyes:

"What! Is it you, my poor Joseph?" cried he, springing from his horse.

He lifted me in his arms as if I were an infant, and shouted to the men who were driving the last wagon:


Then embracing me, he placed me in it, my head upon a knapsack. I saw too that he wrapped a great cavalry cloak around my feet, as he cried:

"Forward! Forward! It is growing warm yonder!"

I remember no more, but I have the faint impression of hearing the sound of heavy guns and rattle of musketry, mingled with shouts and commands. Branches of tall pines seemed to pass between me and the sky through the night; but all this might have been a dream. But that day, behind Solmunster, in the woods of Hanau, we had a battle with the Bavarians, and routed them.


On the fifteenth of January, 1814, two months and a half after the battle of Hanau, I awoke in a good bed, and at the end of a little, well-warmed room; and gazing at the rafters over my head, then at the little windows, where the frost had spread its silver sheen, I exclaimed: "It is winter!" At the same time I heard the crash of artillery and the crackling of a fire, and turning over on my bed in a few moments, I saw seated at its side a pale young woman, with her arms folded, and I recognized—Catharine! I recognized, too, the room where I had spent so many happy Sundays before going to the wars. But the thunder of the cannon made me think I was dreaming. I gazed for a long while at Catharine, who seemed more beautiful than ever, and the question rose, "Where is Aunt Gredel? am I at home once more? God grant that this be not a dream!"

At last I took courage and called softly:

"Catharine!" And she, turning her head cried:

"Joseph! Do you know me?"

"Yes," I replied, holding out my hand.

She approached, trembling and sobbing, when again and again the cannon thundered.

"What are those shots I hear?" I cried.

"The guns of Phalsbourg," she answered. "The city is besieged."

"Phalsbourg besieged! The enemy in France!"

I could speak no more. Thus had so much suffering, so many tears, so many thousands of lives gone for nothing, ay, worse than nothing, for the foe was at our homes. For an hour I could think of nothing else; and now, old and gray-haired as I am, the thought fills me with bitterness. Yes, we old men have seen the German, the Russian, the Swede, the Spaniard, the Englishman, masters of France, garrisoning our cities, taking whatever suited them from our fortresses, insulting our soldiers, changing our flag, and dividing among themselves, not only our conquests since 1804, but even those of the Republic. These were the fruits of ten years of glory!

But let us not speak of these things, the future will pass upon them. They will tell us that after Lutzen and Bautzen, the enemy offered to leave us Belgium, part of Holland, all the left bank of the Rhine as far as Bale, with Savoy and the kingdom of Italy; and that the Emperor refused to accept these conditions, brilliant as they were, because he placed the satisfaction of his own pride before the happiness of France!

But to return to my story. For two weeks after the battle of Hanau, thousands of wagons, filled with wounded, crowded the road from Strasbourg to Nancy, and passed through Phalsbourg.

They stretched in one long line through all Alsace to Lorraine.

Not one in the sad cortege escaped the eyes of Aunt Gredel and Catharine. What their thoughts were, I need not say. More than twelve hundred wagons had passed;—I was in none of them. Thousands of fathers and mothers sought among them for their children. How many returned without them!

The third day Catharine found me among a heap of other wretches, in basket wagons from Mayence, with sunken cheeks and glaring eyes—dying of hunger. She knew me at once, but Aunt Gredel gazed long before she cried:

"Yes! it is he! It is Joseph!"

She took me home, and watched over me night and day. I wanted only water, for which I constantly shrieked. No one in the village believed that I would ever recover, but the happiness of breathing my native air and of once more seeing those I loved, saved me.

It was about six months after, on the 15th of July, 1814, that Catharine and I were married; Monsieur Goulden, who loved us as his own children, gave me half his business, and we lived together as happy as birds.

Then the wars were ended; the allies gradually returned to their homes; the Emperor went to Elba, and King Louis XVIII. gave us a reasonable amount of liberty. Once more the sweet days of youth returned—the days of love, of labor, and of peace. The future was once more full of hope—of hope that every one, by good conduct and economy, would at some time attain a position in the world, win the esteem of good men, and raise his family without fear of being carried off by the conscription seven or eight years after.

Monsieur Goulden, who was not too well satisfied at seeing the old kings and nobility return, thought, notwithstanding, that they had suffered enough in foreign lands to understand that they were not the only people in the world, and to respect our rights; he thought, too, that the Emperor Napoleon would have the good sense to remain quiet—but he was mistaken. The Bourbons returned with their old notions, and the Emperor only awaited the moment of vengeance.

All this was to bring more miseries upon us, which I would willingly relate, if this story did not seem already long enough. But here let us rest. If people of sense tell me that I have done well in relating my campaign of 1813—that my story may show youth the vanity of military glory, and prove that no man can gain happiness save by peace, liberty, and labor—then I will take up my pen once more, and give you the story of Waterloo!


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