When this form of brigandage was disclosed, several generals and colonels decided to put a stop to it. General Maison kept such a close watch in the lines of 2nd Corps, that one fine night our guards surprised a group of about fifty Poles at the moment when they were about to play their role of Cossacks. Seeing that they were surrounded these bandits had the impudence to claim that they were just having a joke, but as this was not the time nor place for laughter, General Maison had them all shot out of hand. It was some time before we saw robbers of this kind again, but they reappeared later.
On the 9th of December, we arrived at Wilna, where there were some stores; but as the Duc de Bassano and General Hogendorp had left for the Nieman, there was no one to give orders, so that there, as at Smolensk, the officials demanded proper receipts for the issue of food and clothing, which was virtually impossible because of the disorganization of almost all the regiments. We lost some precious time in this way General Maison broke into several stores and his men took some supplies, but the remainder was taken the next day by the Russians. Soldiers from other corps wandered round the town in the hope of being taken in by the inhabitants, but the people who six months previously had welcomed the French with open arms, closed their doors to us when they saw us in distress. Only the Jews would accommodate those who could pay for temporary shelter.
Admitted neither to the stores nor to private houses, the majority of famished men headed for the hospitals where, although there was not enough food for all of them, they were at least sheltered from the piercing cold. This respite was enough to decide 20,000 sick and wounded, among whom were two hundred officers and eight generals, to go no further. They had reached the end of their physical and mental resources.
Lieutenant Hernoux, one of the most vigourous and brave officers in my regiment, was so overcome by what he had been through that he lay down on the snow, refusing to move, until he died. Several soldiers, of all ranks, blew their brains out, to escape from their suffering.
During the night 9th-10th December, in thirty degrees of frost, some Cossacks came and began shooting at the gates of Wilna. Many people thought this was the entire army of Koutousoff, and in a panic they fled from the town. I regret to say that King Murat was among them. He left without giving any orders, but Marshal Ney stayed and organised the retreat as best he could. We quitted Wilna on the morning of the 10th, leaving behind not only a great number of men, but also an artillery park and a part of the army's funds.
We had scarcely left the town when the infamous Jews turned on the men whom they had taken into their houses, stripped them of their clothes and threw them out naked into the snow. Some officers of the Russian advance-guard, which was entering the town, were so indignant at this behaviour that they killed a number of them.
In the midst of this chaos Marshal Ney had urged onto the road to Kowno all those whom he could stir into movement, but he had gone no more than a league when he came to the hill of Ponari. This small slope which in other circumstances the army would have hardly noticed, now became a most serious obstacle because the ice with which it was covered made it so slippery that the draught-horses were unable to drag up it the carts and wagons, so that what remained of the army's money would have fallen into the hands of the Cossacks had not Marshal Ney ordered that the wagons should be opened and the soldiers allowed to empty the strong-boxes. This sensible measure gave rise later to assertions that the men had robbed the Imperial treasury.
Several days before our arrival at Wilna, the intense cold having killed many of our horses and made the rest unfit to ride, my troopers all went on foot. I would have very much liked to join them but my injury prevented this, so I took to a sledge to which was harnessed one of my horses. This new method of transport gave me the idea that I might by this means save the sick men, of whom I had a considerable number. There is no dwelling in Russia so poor that it does not have a sledge, and it was not long before I had a hundred or so, each one drawn by a troop horse, carrying two sick men. This method of travel seemed to General Castex to be so convenient that he authorised me to put all my men on sledges. The commander of the 24th did the same and so the remains of the brigade became a sledge-borne unit.
You may think that in doing this we deprived ourselves of any means of defence, but you would be wrong, for we were much more mobile with the sleds, which could go anywhere, and whose shafts held up the horses, than we would have been in the saddle of animals which fell down all the time.
As the road was covered with abandoned muskets, each of our Chasseurs took two of them and an ample provision of cartridges, so that if any Cossacks dared to approach, they were met by a volume of fire which quickly drove them off. Our troopers could also fight on foot if need be. In the evening we formed a big square with our sledges, in the middle of which we lit our fires. Marshal Ney and General Maison often came to spend the night here, where they were secure, since the only enemies present were the Cossacks. This was undoubtedly the first time anyone had seen a rear-guard mounted on sledges; but it was a success in the prevailing conditions.
We continued to cover the retreat until, on the 13th of December, we saw the Nieman once more, and Kowno (Kaunas), the last town in Russia. It was at this spot that five months earlier we had entered the empire of the Czars. How greatly had our circumstances changed since then!...What appalling losses had we suffered!
On entering Kowno with the rear-guard, Marshal Ney found that the only garrison was a small battalion of Germans some 400 strong, whom he joined to the troops which he still had in order to defend the town for as long as possible, to give the sick and wounded the opportunity to cross into Prussia. When he heard that Ney had arrived, King Murat left for Gumbinnen.
On the 14th, Platov's Cossacks, followed by two battalions of Russian infantry, mounted on sledges together with several guns, appeared at Kovno which they attacked at a number of points; but Marshal Ney, helped by General Grard, held them off until nightfall, when he took us across the frozen Nieman, and was the last to leave Russian territory.
We were now in Prussia, an allied country... Marshal Ney, worn out and ill, regarding the campaign as finished left us and went to Gumbinnen, where there was a gathering of all the marshals. From that moment the army had no overall commander and each regiment made its own way into Prussia. The Russians, who were at war with this country, would have been entitled to follow us there, but satisfied with having re-conquered their territory, and not sure whether they should present themselves to the Prussians as friends or enemies, they decided to await instructions from their government, and halted at the Nieman. We took advantage of their hesitation to head for the towns of old Prussia.
The Germans are usually humane; many of them had relatives or friends in the regiments which had gone with us to Moscow. We were received well enough, and I can promise you that having slept for five months in the open, I was delighted to find myself in a warm room and a comfortable bed, but this sudden transition from a glacial bivouac to long-forgotten repose made me seriously ill. Nearly all the army were affected in this way. A number of them died, including Generals bl and Lariboisire, the artillery commanders.
In spite of the adequate reception given to us, the Prussians remembered their defeat at Jena, and the way in which Napoleon had treated them in 1807 when he seized part of their kingdom. Secretly they hated us and would have disarmed and captured us at the first signal from their King. Already General York, who led the numerous Prussian units which the Emperor had so unwisely placed on the left wing of the Grande Arme, and who were stationed between Tilsit and Riga, had made a pact with the Russians and had sent back Marshal Macdonald, whom, from some remnant of conscience, he did not dare to arrest.
The Prussians of all classes approved of General York's treachery, and as the provinces through which the sick and disarmed French soldiers were then passing were full of Prussian troops, it is probable that the inhabitants would have sought to take hold of them had it not been that they feared for their King, who was in Berlin, in the midst of a French army commanded by Marshal Augereau. This fear and the repudiation by the King (the most honest man in his kingdom) ofGeneral York, who was tried for treason and condemned to death, prevented a general uprising against the French. We profited from this to reach the Vistula and leave the country.
My regiment crossed the river near the fortress of Graudenz at the same place at which we had crossed on our way to Russia; but this time the crossing was much more dangerous because the thaw had already begun some leagues upstream and the ice was covered by about a foot of water and one could hear frightening crackings which heralded a general break-up. Added to which, it was in the middle of a dark night that I was given the order to cross the river immediately, for the General had just been informed that the King of Prussia had left Berlin and taken refuge in Silesia, in the midst of a considerable armed force. The populace becoming restless it was feared that they would rise against us as soon as the thaw prevented us from crossing the river. We had to get across at all costs, but this was a very dangerous operation, for the Vistula is quite wide at Graudenz, and there were many gaps in the ice which it was difficult to see by the light of the fires lit on both banks.
As there was no possibility of crossing with our sledges, we abandoned them. We led the horses and preceded by some men armed with poles to indicate the crevasses, we commenced the perilous journey. We had icy water half-way up our legs, which was not good for the sick and injured, but the physical discomfort was nothing compared to the anxiety produced by the cracking of the ice, which threatened at any moment to sink beneath our feet. The servant of one of my officers fell into a crevasse and did not reappear. We eventually reached the other side where we spent the night warming ourselves in some fishermen's huts, and the next day we witnessed a total thaw of the Vistula, which, had we delayed our crossing for a few hours, would have made us prisoners.
From the spot where we had crossed the Vistula, we made our way to the little town of Sweld, where my regiment had been in cantonment before the war, and it was there that I greeted the year 1813. The year which had ended was certainly the hardest of my life.
Let us now cast an eye rapidly over the reasons for the failure of the Russian campaign.
Undoubtedly the principal one of these was Napoleon's error in believing that he could make war in the north of Europe, before ending that which had been going on for a long time in Spain, where his armies were suffering serious reverses, at a time when he was preparing to invade Russian territory. The soldiers of French nationality, being thus spread from north to south, were in insufficient numbers everywhere. Napoleon thought he could supplement them by joining to their battalions those of his allies, but this was to dilute a good wine with muddy water. The quality of the French divisions was lowered, the allied troops were never better than mediocre, and it was they, who, during the retreat, sowed disorder in the Grande Arme.
A no less fatal cause of our defeat was the inadequacy, or indeed the total lack of organisation in the occupied countries. Instead of doing as we had done during the campaigns of Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland, and leaving behind the advancing army small bodies of troops which, stretching back in echelon, could keep in regular touch with one another to ensure tranquillity in our rear, to expedite the forwarding of munitions and individual soldiers and the departure of convoys of wounded, we unwisely pushed all our available forces towards Moscow, so that between that city and the Nieman, if one excepts Wilna and Smolensk, there was not one garrison, nor storage depot, nor hospital. Two hundred leagues of countryside were left to roving bands of Cossacks. The result of this was that men who had recovered from illness were unable to rejoin their units, and as there was no system of evacuation, we had to keep all the wounded from the battle for Moscow in the monastery of Kolotskoi for more than two months. They were still there at the time of the retreat and were nearly all taken prisoner, while those who felt able to follow the army died of exhaustion and cold on the roads. Finally, the retreating troops had no supply of stored food in a country which produces vast amounts of grain.
This lack of small garrisons in our rear was the reason why of the more than 100,000 prisoners taken by the French during the campaign, not a single one left Russia, because there was no way in which they could be passed back from hand to hand. All these prisoners escaped with ease and made their way back to the Russian army, which thus recovered some of its losses, while ours increased from day to day.
The absence of interpreters also contributed to our disasters, more than you might think. How, for example can one obtain information about an unknown country, if one cannot exchange a single word with the inhabitants? When, on the bank of the Beresina, General Partouneaux mistook the road, and instead of taking that leading to Studianka, took the one leading to General Wittgenstein's position, he had with him a peasant from Borisoff who, not knowing a word of French, tried to indicate by signs that the encampment was Russian, but, as he was not understood, through lack of an interpreter we lost a fine division of 7 or 8000 men.
In very similar circumstances, during October, the 3rd Lancers, taken by surprise, in spite of the advice of their guide, whom they did not understand, lost two hundred men. Now the Emperor had in his army some bodies of Polish cavalry, nearly all of whose officers and most of their N.C.O.s. spoke fluent Russian; but they were left in their regiments whereas some should have been taken, from each unit, and attached to generals and colonels, where they would have been extremely useful. I consider the provision of interpreters an important but often neglected element in military operations.
I have already commented on the major mistake that was made in forming the two wings of the army from the Prussian and Austrian contingents. The Emperor must have greatly regretted this, firstly on learning that the Austrians had given passage to the Russian army of Tchitchakoff, who then cut our line of retreat on the banks of the Beresina, and secondly when told of the treachery of General York, the head of the Prussian Corps. His regret must have increased further during and after the retreat, for if he had formed the two wings from French troops and had taken to Moscow the Austrians and Prussians, the two latter, having suffered their share of the hardships and the casualties would have been as much enfeebled as all the other corps, while Napoleon would have kept intact the French troops he had left on the two wings. I would go even further and say that to weaken Prussia and Austria Napoleon should have required from them contingents triple or quadruple the size of those which they contributed. It has been said with hindsight that neither of the two states would have complied with such a demand, but I disagree. The King of Prussia who had come to Dresden to beg the Emperor to accept his son as an aide-de-camp would not have dared to refuse, while Austria, in the hope of recovering some of the rich provinces which Napoleon had snatched from her would have done everything to satisfy him. The overconfidence which Napoleon had, in 1812, in the fidelity of those two states was his undoing.
It is often claimed that the fire of Moscow, for which praise is given to the courage and resolve of the Russian government and General Rostopschine, was the principal cause of the failure of the 1812 campaign. This assertion seems to me to be contestable. To begin with the destruction of Moscow was not so complete that there did not remain enough houses, palaces, churches and barracks to accommodate the entire army, and there is evidence of this in a report which I have seen in the hands of my friend General Gourgaud, who was then principal aide-de-camp to the Emperor. It was not therefore lack of shelter which forced the French to quit Moscow. Many people think that it was the fear of food shortage, but this is also erroneous, for reports made to the Emperor by M. le Comte Daru, the quartermaster-general of the army, show that even after the fire there was in the city an immense quantity of provisions, which would have supplied the army for six months, so it was not the prospect of starvation which decided the Emperor to retreat. These facts would appear to indicate that the Russian government had failed to achieve its aim, if this was indeed the aim it was pursuing; but in reality, its aim was quite different.
The court wished in fact to deliver a mortal blow to the ancient aristocracy of the Boyars by destroying the city which was the centre for their continual opposition. The Russian government, although entirely despotic, has to pay much attention to the great nobles, whose displeasure has cost several emperors their lives. The richest and most powerful of these noblemen made Moscow the backdrop for their intrigues, so the government, more and more alarmed at the growth of the city, saw in the French invasion an opportunity for its destruction. General Rostopschine, who was one of the authors of this plan, was entrusted with its execution, the blame for which he later laid on the French. The aristocracy was not taken in, it accused the government so loudly and manifested so much discontent at the useless burning of its palaces that the Emperor Alexander, to avoid a personal catastrophe, was obliged not only to permit the rebuilding of the city, but to banish Rostopschine who, in spite of his protestations of patriotism, died in Paris, hated by the Russian nobility.
Whatever the motives may have been for the fire of Moscow, I think that its preservation would have been more harmful than useful to the French, for in order to control a city inhabited by some 300,000 citizens always ready to revolt, it would have been necessary to take from the army, and place as a garrison in Moscow, 50,000 men, who, when the time came to retreat, would have been assailed by the inhabitants, whereas the fire having driven out almost all the populace, a few patrols were enough to ensure tranquillity.
The only influence which Moscow had on the events of 1812 was due to the fact that Napoleon was unable to understand that Alexander could not sue for peace without being assassinated by his subjects, and believed that to leave the city without a treaty would be to admit that he was not able to hold on to it. The French Emperor insisted, therefore, on staying as long as possible in Moscow, where he wasted more than a month waiting in vain for a proposal of peace. This delay was fatal for it allowed the winter to become established before the French army could go into cantonments in Poland. Even if Moscow had been preserved intact it would not have made any difference; the disaster arose because the retreat was not prepared in advance and was carried out at the wrong time. It was not difficult to forecast that it would be very cold in Russia during the winter, but I repeat, the hope of a peace misled Napoleon and was the sole cause of his long stay in Moscow.
The losses suffered by the Grande Arme were enormous, but they have been exaggerated. I have already said that I have seen a situation report, covered with notes in Napoleon's hand, which gives the figure of those who crossed the Nieman as 325,000, of whom 155,000 were French. Reports issued in February 1813 gave the number of French who returned across the Nieman as 60,000, added to this figure can be that of 30,000 prisoners returned by the Russians after the peace of 1814. Giving a total loss of French lives of 65,000.
The loss inflicted on my regiment was in proportion much smaller. At the beginning of the campaign we had 1018 men in the ranks and we received 30 reinforcements at Polotsk, so that I took into Russia 1048 troopers. Of this number I had 109 killed, 77 taken prisoner, 65 injured and 104 missing. This amounted to a loss of 355 men, so that after the return of the men whom I had sent to Warsaw, the regiment, which from the bank of the Vistula had been sent beyond the Elbe to the principality of Dessau, had in the saddle 693 men, all of whom had fought in the Russian campaign.
When he saw this figure, the Emperor, who from Paris was supervising the reorganising of his army, thought it was a mistake, and sent the report back to me with an order to produce a corrected version. When I returned the same figure once more, he ordered General Sbastiani to go and inspect my regiment and give him a nominal roll of the men present. This operation having removed all doubt, and confirmed my report, I received a few days later a letter from the Major-general couched in the most flattering terms and addressed to all officers and N.C.O.s and particularly to me, in which Prince Berthier stated that he had been directed by the Emperor to express his Majesty's satisfaction at the care we had taken of our men's lives, and his praise for the conduct of all our officers and N.C.O.s.
After having had this letter read out before all the squadrons, I had intended to keep it as a precious memento for my family, but on further consideration, I decided that it would not be right to deprive the regiment of a document in which was expressed the Emperor's satisfaction with all its members, so I sent it to be included in the regimental archive. I have frequently repented of this, for scarcely a year had passed before the government of Louis XVIII was substituted for that of the Emperor, and the 23rd Chasseurs was combined with the 3rd. The archives of the two regiments were collected together, badly cared for, and after the total disbanding of the army in 1815, they disappeared into the yawning gulf of the war office. I tried in vain, after the revolution of 1830, to recover this letter, which was so flattering to my old regiment and to me, but it could not be found.
The year 1813 began very badly for France. The remains of our army, returning from Russia, had scarcely crossed the Vistula and started to reorganise, when the treachery of General York and the troops under his command forced us to retire beyond the Elbe, and shortly to abandon Berlin and all of Prussia, which rose against us, helped by the units which Napoleon had imprudently left there. The Russians speeded up their march as much as possible, and came to join the Prussians, whose King now declared war on the French Emperor.
Napoleon had in northern Germany no more than two divisions, commanded, it is true, by Augereau, but consisting mainly of conscripts. As for those French troops who had fought in Russia, once they were well fed and no longer slept on the snow, they recovered their strength, and could have been used oppose the enemy; but our cavalry were almost all without horses, very few infantrymen had kept their weapons, we had no artillery, the majority of the soldiers had no footwear and their uniform was in rags. The government had employed part of the year 1812 in making equipment of all sorts, but owing to the negligence of the war department, then in the hands of M. Lacue Comte de Cessac, no regiment received the clothing allotted to it. The conduct of the administration in these circumstances deserves some comment.
When a regimental depot had got together, at great expense, the numerous items required by its active battalions or squadrons, the administration arranged, with forwarding agents, the transport of the supplies as far as Mainz, which was then part of the Empire. These goods were in no danger while crossing France to the bank of the Rhine; however M. de Cessac ordered a detachment of troops to escort them as far as Mainz. There they were handed over to foreign agents, who were supposed to forward them to Magdeberg, Berlin, and the Vistula, without any French supervision. This undertaking was carried out with so much bad faith and delay that the packages containing the supplies of clothing and footwear took six to eight months to go from Mainz to the Vistula, a distance they should have covered in forty days.
This had been no more than a serious inconvenience when the French armies were in peaceful occupation of Germany and Poland, but it became a calamity after the Russian campaign. More than two hundred barges laden with supplies for our regiments were ice-bound in the Bromberg canal, near Nackel, when we passed this point in January 1813, but as there was, in this immense convoy, no French agent, and as the Prussian bargees already considered us as enemies, no one told us that these vessels were loaded with goods. The next day the Prussians took possession of this huge quantity of clothing and footwear and used it to equip several of the regiments they sent against us. Although the result of this was that the increasing cold killed a large number of French soldiers, there are those who boast of our efficient administration!
The lack of order in the French army's line of march as it went through Prussia was due principally to the ineptitude of Murat, who had assumed command after the departure of the Emperor, and later to the feebleness of Prince Eugne de Beauharnais, the Vice-Roi of Italy.
When the time came for us to re-cross the Elbe and enter the territory of the Confederation of the Rhine, the Emperor, before removing his troops from Poland and Prussia, wanted to facilitate a return to the offensive by leaving strong garrisons in the fortresses which could assure the crossing of the Vistula, the Oder and the Elbe, such as Thorn, Stettin, Magdeberg, Danzig, Dresden, etc.
This major decision on the part of the Emperor may be looked at in two ways. So it has been praised by some knowledgeable military observers and condemned by others.
The first party say that the need to provide a place of rest and safety for the numerous sick and wounded, which the army brought back from Russia, compelled the Emperor to occupy these fortresses, which, in addition, could store a massive amount of military equipment and foodstuffs. They add that these fortresses hindered enemy movements and by investing them, the enemy reduced the number of troops which could be actively employed against us; and finally that if the reinforcements which Napoleon was bringing from France and Germany enabled him to win a battle, the possession of the forts would help to ensure a new conquest of Prussia, which would bring us to the banks of the Vistula and force the Russians to return to their country.
In reply to this it is claimed that Napoleon weakened his army by breaking it up into so many scattered units who could not give each other mutual assistance; that it was not necessary to compromise the security of France in order to save a some thousands of sick and wounded, very few of whom would return to active service, and of whom nearly all died in the hospitals. It was also said that the regiments of Italians, Poles and Germans from the Confederation of the Rhine, which the Emperor mingled with the garrisons in order to lessen the requirement of French units, would not be much use; and in fact almost all the foreign troops fought very badly and ended up by going over to the enemy. Finally it was claimed that the occupation of the forts gave very little trouble to the Russian and Prussian armies, which, after blockading them with an observation force, could continue their march towards France. Which is what actually happened.
I find myself in agreement with latter of these two opinions, because it is evident that the forts could be of use to us only if we overcame the Russian and Prussian armies, which was a reason for concentrating our disposable manpower rather than dispersing it.
It might be said that as the enemy would no longer have to blockade the forts, they would thus have an increase in their manpower to match ours; but this is not so, for the enemy would have to leave strong garrisons in the forts which we abandoned, while we could make use of the men which were at present immobilised. I may add that the defence of these useless forts deprived the army in the field of the services of a number of experienced generals, among others, Marshal Davout, who alone was worth several divisions. I accept that during a campaign one must leave behind several brigades to guard places on which the safety of a country depends, such as Metz, Lille and Strasbourg, in the case of France, but the forts situated on the Vistula, the Oder and the Elbe, two or three hundred leagues from France were of only conditional importance, that is to say dependent on the success of our army in the field. When this did not come about, over eighty thousand men whom the Emperor had left in those garrisons in 1812 were obliged to surrender.
The position of France in the first months of 1813 was extremely critical, for in the south our armies in Spain had suffered some very serious reverses due to the weakening of their strength by the continual withdrawal of regiments, while the English ceaselessly sent reinforcements to Wellington, who had fought a brilliant campaign during 1812, and had captured Cuidad-Rodrigo, Badajoz and the fort of Salamanca, had won the battle of Arapiles, occupied Madrid and now threatened the Pyrenees.
In the north, the numerous battle-hardened soldiers whom Napoleon had led into Russia had nearly all died in action or of cold and starvation. The still intact Prussian army had just joined the Russians, and the Austrians were on the point of following their example. Finally, the sovereigns, and more importantly, the people of the Germanic Confederation, stirred up by the English, were wavering in their allegiance to France. The Prussian Baron Stein, an able and enterprising man, took this opportunity to publish a number of pamphlets in which he appealed to all Germans to shake off the yoke of Napoleon and regain their liberty. This appeal was readily received, as the passage, accommodation and maintenance of the French troops who had occupied Germany since 1806 had occasioned great expense, to which was added the confiscation of English merchandise as a result of Napoleon's continental blockade. The Confederation of the Rhine would have defected if the rulers of the various states of which it was composed had decided to listen to the wishes of their subjects; but none of them dared budge, so ingrained was their habit of obedience to the French Emperor, and so great their fear of seeing him arrive at any moment, to head the considerable forces which he was organising with such speed and building up constantly in Germany.
The greater part of the French nation still had the greatest confidence in Napoleon. Those who were well-informed blamed him, no doubt, for having the previous year led his army to Moscow, and in particular for having awaited the winter there, but the mass of the people, who were used to considering the Emperor as infallible and had no notion of the events of this campaign nor of the losses suffered by our men, saw only the glory which the occupation of Moscow reflected on our arms, and were more than willing to give the Emperor the means to heap victories round his eagles. Every department and every town gave patriotic gifts of horses, though the numerous levies of conscripts and money soon cooled this enthusiasm. Nevertheless the nation complied with reasonably good grace, and battalions and squadrons seemed to rise out of the ground, as if by some enchantment. It was remarkable that after all the levies of conscripts which had been made over the last twenty years, we had never recruited a finer body of men. There were several explanations for this.
To begin with, each of the eight hundred departments which then existed had, for several years, maintained a company of so-called departmental infantry, a sort of praetorian guard for the Prefects, who made a point of selecting men of a high physical standard for this duty. These men never left the principal towns of the department, where they were very well housed, fed and clad, and as they had very few duties to perform, they were able to build up their physical strength, for most of them led this life for six or seven years, during which time they were exercised regularly in the handling of arms, and in marches and manoeuvres. They lacked only the "baptism of fire" to become complete soldiers. These companies, depending on the importance of the department, were of 150 to 250 men. The Emperor sent them all to the army, where they were absorbed into the line regiments.
In the second place there was called into service a great number of conscripts from previous years, who had by protection, cunning or temporary illness obtained deferment, that is to say permission to remain at home until further orders. These older men were nearly all strong and vigourous.
These measures were legal; but what was not was the call-up of those who had already taken part in the ballot for conscription and whose names had not been drawn. These people, to whom this lottery had given the legal right to remain civilians, were nevertheless compelled to take up arms if they were less than thirty years old. This levy produced a large number of men fit to support the hardships of war. There was some objection raised to this measure, mainly in the Midi and the Vende, but the greater part of the contingent fell into line, so great was the habit of obedience. This meekness on the part of the populace enticed the government into practices even more illegal and more dangerous withal, in that they struck at the upper class; for after forcibly enlisting men who had been exempted by lot, the same measure was applied to those who had quite legally paid for a replacement, and they were forced into the army, although some families had been financially strained and even ruined in an attempt to save their sons, for at that time replacements cost from 12 to 20,000 francs, which had to be paid in cash. There were even young men who had been replaced two or three times, but who were still forced to go, and it was not unknown for one to find himself serving in the same company as the man he had paid to be his substitute. This injustice was the result of advice given by Clarke, the Minister for War and Savary, the Minister of Police , who persuaded the Emperor that to prevent any disturbance during the war, it was necessary to remove the sons of influential families from the country and put them in the army, to serve, in some respects, as hostages... To reduce somewhat the odium felt by the upper class towards this imposition, the Emperor created, under the name of "Guards of Honour", four regiments of light cavalry, specially reserved for young gentlemen of good family. These units, which were given a brilliant Hussar's uniform, were commanded by general officers.
To these more or less legal levies, the Emperor added the men produced by an early conscription and a number of battalions formed from the seamen, sailors and gunners of the navy, all trained men, used to handling arms and bored with the monotonous life in port, keen to join their comrades in the army. There were more than thirty thousand of these seamen, and it did not take long for them to become first class infantry soldiers. Finally the Emperor, obliged to use every means to rebuild his army, of which the greater part had perished in the frozen wastes of Russia, further weakened his forces in Spain by taking not only several thousands of men to make up his guard, but several brigades and entire divisions composed of old soldiers, accustomed to hardship and danger.
For their part, the Russians and particularly the Prussians, were preparing for war. The indefatigable Baron de Stein travelled the provinces, preaching a crusade against the French, and organising his "Tugenbond" whose members swore to take up arms for the liberation of Germany. This society, which stirred up so many enemies against us, operated openly in Prussia, which was already at war with the Emperor, and insinuated itself into the states and armies of the Confederation of the Rhine, despite the opposition of some sovereigns and with the tacit permission of others, to such an extent that almost the whole of Germany was, in secret, our enemy, and the contingents which were joined to our military forces were prepared to betray us at the first opportunity, as events would shortly show. These events would not have taken so long to come about if the German's natural laxity and sloth had not prevented them from acting sooner than they did, for the debris of the French army which crossed the Elbe in 1812 stayed peacefully in cantonment on the left bank of the river for the first four months of 1813, without being attacked by the Russians and Prussians who were stationed on the opposite bank, and who did not feel themselves strong enough to do so, although Prussia had mobilised its landwehr, made up of all fit men, and Bernadotte, forgetting that he was born a Frenchman, had declared war on us, and had joined his Swedish troops to those belonging to the enemies of his native country.
During the period which we spent on the left bank of the Elbe, although the army received continual reinforcements, there was still very little in the way of cavalry except for some regiments, one of which was mine, so we had been allotted as cantonments several communes and the two little towns of Brenha and Landsberg, in pleasant country near Magdeberg. While we were there I had a great disappointment. The Emperor wished to speed the organisation of the new levies and thought that for this purpose the temporary presence of unit commanders at their regimental depots would be useful. So he decided that all colonels should return to France except those who had a certain number of men in their unit, the number fixed for the cavalry was four hundred, and I had more than six hundred mounted men. I was therefore forced to stay behind, when I so much longed to embrace my wife and the child which she had given me during my absence.
To the disappointment which I felt was added another vexation, the good General Castex, whom I had held in such high regard during the Russian campaign, was to leave us and join the mounted Grenadiers of the Guard. His brigade, and that of General Corbineau, who had been given the position of aide-de-camp to the Emperor, were both put in charge of General Exelmans. General Wathiez was to replace Castex, and General Maurin to replace Corbineau. These three generals had however gone to France after the Russian campaign and I was the only colonel left, so General Sbastiani, to whose corps the new division was to be attached, ordered me to take over the command, which added a great deal of work to my regimental duties, for I had to make frequent visits, in appalling weather, to the cantonments of the other three regiments. The wound to my knee, although it had healed, was still painful and I did not know if I would be able to remain on duty until the end of the winter, when after a month General Wathiez returned to take up the command of the division.
A few days later, without my having asked, I was ordered to go to France to organise the large number of recruits and horses which had been sent to my regimental depot. The depot was in the department of Jemmapes, at Mons in Belgium, which was then part of the Empire . I left immediately and travelled quickly. I realised that as I was authorised to go to France on duty, it would not be acceptable for me to request even the shortest period of leave to go to Paris, so I welcomed the offer made by Mme. Desbrires, my mother-in-law, to bring my wife and my son to Mons. After a year of separation, during which I had experienced so many dangers, it was with the greatest pleasure that I once more saw my wife, and held in my arms our little Alfred, now eight months old. This was one of the happiest days of my life. The joy which I felt on holding my little son was increased by the recollection that he very nearly became an orphan on the day of his birth.
I spent the end of April and the months of May and June at the depot, where I was extremely busy. Many recruits had been sent to the 23rd, men of good physique and from a warrior race, for they mostly came from the neighbourhood of Mons, the former province of Hainault, from where the Austrians used to draw their finest cavalrymen, at the time when they possessed the low countries. These are people who love and care well for horses, but as the horses which come from this district are a little too heavy for Chasseurs, I obtained permission to buy some in the Ardennes, from where we obtained a fair selection.
I found at the depot some good officers and N.C.O.s, several of whom had been in Russia and had gone to the depot to recover from injuries or illness, and the ministry sent me some young officers from the school of cavalry at Saint-Cyr. From this material I made up various squadrons, which, although not perfect, could mingle without difficulty with the old cavalrymen from Russia whom I had left on the banks of the Elbe, and throughout whom they would be spread on their arrival. As soon as a squadron was ready it was sent off to join the army.
While I was busily engaged in rebuilding my regiment, as were many other colonels, mainly from the cavalry, who were in France for the same reason, hostilities broke out on the Elbe, which had been crossed by the allies.
The Emperor left Paris, and on the 25th of April he was at Naumbourg, in Saxony, at the head of 170,000 men, of whom only a third were French, a detachment of troops which had been sent to Germany having not yet arrived. The other two thirds of his army was formed of units from the Confederation of the Rhine, the majority of which were very reluctant to fight on his behalf. General Wittgenstein, who had gained some celebrity following our disaster at the Beresina, ( although the weather did us far more harm than his manoeuvres ), was in overall command of the Russian and German troops, a combined force of 300,000 men, which faced Napoleon's army on the 28th of April, in the region of Leipzig.
On the 1st of May there was a sharp engagement at Poserna, in an area where Gustavus Adolphus had died, during which Marshal Bessires was killed by a cannon-ball. The Emperor regretted his death more than did the army, which had not forgotten that it was the advice given to Napoleon by the Marshal, in the evening of the battle for Moscow, which had deterred him from achieving victory by committing his guards to the action; which had he done, it would have changed the outcome and led to the complete destruction of the Russian force.
The day after Bessires' death, while Napoleon was continuing his march towards Leipzig, he was attacked unexpectedly on the flank, by the Russo-Prussians, who had crossed the river Elster during the night. In this battle, which was given the name of the the Battle of Lutzen, there was some fierce fighting, in which the troops newly arrived from France showed the greatest courage, the marine regiments being particularly notable. The enemy, soundly beaten, withdrew towards the Elbe, but the French, having almost no cavalry, were able to take few prisoners and their victory was incomplete. Nevertheless it produced a great moral effect in Europe, and above all in France, for it showed that our troops had retained their fighting qualities, and that only the frosts of Russia had overcome them in 1812.
The Emperor Alexander and the King of Prussia, after being present at Lutzen and witnessing the defeat of their armies, had gone to Dresden, from where they had to withdraw on the approach of the victorious Napoleon, who took possession of the town on the 8th of May, where he was shortly joined by his ally the King of Saxony. After a brief stay in Dresden, the French crossed the Elbe and pursued the Prusso-Russians, whose rear-guard they caught up with and defeated at Bischofswerda.
The Emperor Alexander, dissatisfied with Wittgenstein, assumed personal command of the allied armies, but having been defeated in his turn by Napoleon at Wurtchen, it seems likely that he recognised his lack of ability in this field, for he soon relinquished the position.
The Russo-Prussians having come to a halt and dug in at Bautzen, the French emperor ordered Ney to outflank their position, which resulted in a victory on the 21st of May, which lack of cavalry once more rendered incomplete though the enemy lost 18,000 men and fled in disorder.
On the 22nd, the French, in pursuit of the Russians, made contact with their rearguard at the pass of Reichenbach. What little cavalry Napoleon had was commanded by General Latour-Maubourg, a most distinguished soldier, who led it with such lan that the enemy were overwhelmed and abandoned the field after heavy losses. Those suffered by the French, though fewer, were most painful. The cavalry general, Bruyre, a fine officer, had both his legs carried away and died of this dreadful injury; but the saddest event of the day was the result of a cannon-ball which, after killing General Kirgener (brother-in-law of Marshal Lannes), mortally wounded Marshal Duroc, the grand marshal of the palace, a man liked by everyone, and Napoleon's oldest and best friend. Marshal Duroc survived for a few hours following his injury, and the Emperor who was at his side showed every sign of the deepest grief. Those who witnessed this melancholy scene, noted that the Emperor, who was forced to leave his friend by the demands of duty, parted from him in tears, having given him a rendez-vous in "A better world".
The French army now pressed on into Silesia, whose capital, Breslau (Wroclaw) it occupied on the 1st of June. The allies, and in particular the Prussians, much alarmed, realised that in spite of their boasts, they were unable, without help, to stop the French, and wanted to gain a respite in the hope that the Austrians would end their hesitation and join forces with them. They sent out envoys, given the task of soliciting an armistice which, subject to the mediation of Austria, would lead, they said, to a peace treaty. Napoleon thought that he should agree to this armistice, and so it was signed on the 4th of June, to last until the 10th of August.
While Napoleon was going from success to success, Marshal Oudinot was defeated at Luckau, and lost 1100 men. The Emperor hoped that during the armistice the numerous reinforcements from France which he was awaiting, particularly the cavalry which had been sorely missed, would make their appearance, and would take part in a new campaign if that became unavoidable. There were, however, several generals who regretted that the Emperor had not followed up his victory. They argued that if the armistice permitted us to build up our reserves, it did the same for the Russo-Prussians, who hoped that they would be joined by the Austrians, as well as by the Swedes, who were marching to their aid. The former were not yet ready, but they would have more than two months to organise and put into motion their numerous troops.
When at Mons I heard of the victories of Lutzen and Bautzen, I was sorry not to have been there, but my regrets were diminished when I found that my regiment had not been involved; it was, in fact, before Magdeburg on the road to Berlin. M.Lacour, a former aide-de-camp to General Castex had been posted as squadron commander to the 23rd, about the end of 1812, and he took command of the regiment in my absence. He was a brave man, who had acquired some education by reading, which gave him pretentions which were out of place in a military milieu; in addition to which his lack of experience as a commanding officer, resulted in the regiment suffering losses which should have been avoided, and of which I shall speak later. While I was at the depot, I gained as second squadron commander M. Pozac, a very fine officer in all respects who had been awarded a "Sabre of Honour" for his conduct at the battle of Marengo.
Towards the end of June, all the colonels who had been sent to France to organise the new forces, having completed this task, were ordered to return to their posts with the army, although hostilities would be suspended for some time. I was therefore forced to leave my family with whom I had passed so many happy days. Duty called and I had to obey.
I once more took the road to Germany, and went first to Dresden, to where the Emperor had summoned all the colonels in order to question them about the composition of the detachments they had sent to the army. There I learned something which annoyed me greatly. At the depot I had organised four superb squadrons of 150 men each. The two first of which (happily the smartest and best) had joined the regiment; the third had been taken, by Imperial decision, and sent to Hamburg to be incorporated in the 28th Chasseurs, one of the weakest regiments in the army. This was a lawful order, and I accepted it without complaint: but it was not the same when I was told that the 4th squadron which I had sent from Mons, having been noticed as it passed through Cassel, by Jrme, the King of Westphalia, this prince had found it so desirable that he had, on his own authority, enrolled it in his Guard. I knew that the Emperor, very irritated that his brother had taken it upon himself to make off with some Imperial troops, had ordered him to send them on their way immediately, and I had hopes that I would receive them; but King Jrme got hold of some of the Emperor's aides, who represented to his Majesty that as the King of Westphalia's Guard was composed entirely of Germans, who were not by any means to be relied upon, it was right that he should have a French squadron on whose loyalty he could count; in the second place the King had, at much expense, equipped the squadron with the brilliant uniform of Hussars of his Guard; and finally, that even without this squadron, the 23rd would still be the strongest regiment in the French cavalry. Whatever the reason, my squadron remained in the Westphalian guard, in spite of my loud protests. I could not get over this loss, and found it supremely unjust that I should be deprived of the fruits of my trouble and labour.
I rejoined my regiment not far from the Oder in the region of Zagan, where it was in cantonment in the little town of Freistadt, as was Exelman's division, of which it was a part.
During our stay in this area, a curious incident occurred. A trooper by the name of Tantz, the only bad character in the regiment, having got thoroughly drunk, threatened an officer who had ordered him to be put in the police cell. Put before a court-martial he was found guilty, condemned to death and the sentence confirmed. Now when the guard, commanded by Warrant-officer Boivin, went to fetch Tantz to take him to the place where he was to be shot, they found him in the cell completely naked, on the pretext that it was too hot.
The warrant-officer, a brave fellow, but one whose brains did not match his courage, instead of making him dress, told him to wrap himself in a cloak. However, having arrived on the draw-bridge across the large moat which surrounded the chteau, Tantz threw the cloak in the faces of the guard, leapt into the moat which he swam across, and having reached the other side made off to join the enemy on the opposite bank of the Oder. We never heard anything more of him... I broke the warrant-officer for being so careless, but he soon regained his rank, by an act of bravery which I shall describe shortly.
The squadrons which I had recently added to the regiment, brought its strength up to 993 men, of whom almost 700 had fought in the Russian campaign. The newly arrived soldiers were a well-built body of men who had nearly all come from the departmental legion of Jemmapes, which made it easier to train them as cavalrymen; I incorporated the newcomers in the older squadrons. Both sides were preparing for the coming struggle but our opponents had made good use of their time, and had presented us with a powerful adversary by persuading the Austrians to take up arms against us.
The Emperor Napoleon, whom numerous victories had accustomed to taking little account of his enemies, believed himself to be once more invincible, when he saw himself in Germany at the head of 300,000 men, but he did not examine sufficiently closely the composition of the forces with which he was about to oppose the whole of Europe united against him.
The French army had received an intake of fine quality recruits, and had never looked better; but with the exception of some regiments, the majority of these new soldiers had never been in action, and the disasters of the Russian campaign had generated an uneasy feeling in the corps, the effects of which were still felt. Our superb army was better suited to being put on show to obtain terms, than to being engaged at this moment in combat. Nearly all the generals and colonels, who saw the regiments at close quarters, were of the opinion that they needed some years of peace.
If one were to pass from the French army to an examination of those of her allies, one would see nothing but apathy, ill-will and the wish for an opportunity to betray France. Everything should have led Napoleon to treat with his enemies, and to do this he should have first settled with his father-in-law, the Emperor of Austria, by giving back to him Dalmatia, Istria, the Tyrol and some of the other provinces which he had seized in 1805 and 1809. Some concessions of this sort offered to Prussia would have quietened the allies who, it seems, were willing to return to Napoleon the colonies which had been taken from France and to guarantee his occupation of all the provinces this side of the Rhine and the Alps, and also upper Italy; but in return he would have to give up Spain, Poland, Naples and Westphalia. These terms were acceptable; but at a conference with the diplomats sent to discuss them, Napoleon was rude to M. Metternich, the principal member of the delegation, and sent them away without any concessions. It is said that as he saw them leave the palace of Dresden, he remarked "We'll give them a sound thrashing". The Emperor seemed to forget that the enemy armies were almost three times the size of his own forces. He had in fact no more than 320,000 men in Germany, while the allies could put in the line almost 800,000 fighting men.
The Emperor's birthday was on the 15th of August, but he ordered that it should be celebrated in advance, because the armistice ended on the 10th. The rejoicings of Saint-Napoleon's day then took place in the cantonments. This was the last time that the French army celebrated the birthday of its Emperor! There was not much enthusiasm, for even the least perceptive of officers was aware that we were on the brink of a catastrophe, and the worries of the commanders affected the morale of their subalterns. However each one prepared to do his duty, though with little hope of success, in view of the great inferiority in numbers of our army as opposed to the innumerable troops of the enemy. Already, among our allies of the Confederation of the Rhine, the Saxon General Thielmann had deserted with his brigade to join the Prussians, after trying to hand over to them the fortress of Torgau. Among our troops there was much uneasiness and lack of confidence.
It was at this time that one heard of the return to Europe of General Moreau who, condemned to banishment after the conspiracy of Pichegru and Cadoudal, had retired to America. The hatred which Moreau had for Napoleon made him forget the duty he owed to his country. He soiled his reputation by ranging himself with the enemies of France; however, it was not long before he paid the price of this infamous conduct.
Now an immense semi-circle was formed around the French army. A body of 40,000 Russians was in Mecklemberg; Bernadotte, the Prince Royal of Sweden, occupied Berlin and the surrounding district with an army of 120,000 men, composed of Swedes, Russians and Prussians. Two great Russian and Prussian armies, 220,000 men strong, of whom 35,000 were cavalry, were in Silesia between Schweidnitz and the Oder; 40,000 Austrians were stationed at Lintz, and the main Austrian army of about 140,000 men was concentrated in Prague; finally, a short distance behind this front line of 560,000 combatants, an enormous body of reserves was ready to march.
The distribution of his troops made by Napoleon was as follows: 70,000 men were concentrated around Dahmen in Prussia, to oppose Bernadotte; Marshal Ney with 100,000 occupied part of Silesia. A corps of 70,000 was in the region of Zittau. Marshal Saint-Cyr with 16,000 men occupied the camp at Pirna and gave cover to Dresden. Finally the Imperial Guard, 20 to 25,000 strong was spread round this capital, ready to go wherever was necessary. Including the troops left in the garrisons of the forts, the troops at Napoleon's disposal were infinitely fewer than those of the enemy. This enumeration did not include the forces left in Spain and Italy.
The French Emperor had divided his army into 14 Corps, called infantry, although they each contained at least a brigade of light cavalry. The commanding generals were as follows:-
1 Corps. Gen. Vandamme.
2 Corps. Marshal Victor.
3 Corps. Marshal Ney.
4 Corps. Gen. Bertrand.
5 Corps. Gen. Lauriston.
6 Corps. Marshal Marmont.
7 Corps. Gen. Reynier.
8 Corps. Prince Poniatowski.
9 Corps. Marshal Augereau.
10 Corps. (confined in Danzig) Gen. Rapp.
11 Corps. Marshal Macdonald.
12 Corps. Marshal Oudinot.
13 Corps. Marshal Davout.
14 Corps. Marshal Saint-Cyr.
Finally came the Guard, under the direct orders of the Emperor.
The cavalry was divided into 5 Corps, commanded by 1. Gen. Latour-Mauberg, 2. Gen. Sbastiani, 3. Gen. Arrighi, 4. Gen. Kellermann. 5. Gen. Milhau. The cavalry of the Guard was commanded by general Nansouty.
The army, as a whole, approved of some of these appointments but disapproved of others. They disliked such important posts being given to Oudinot, who had made more than one mistake during the Russian campaign, to Marmont, whose rashness had lost the battle of Arpiles, to Sbastiani, who did not seem equal to the task, and finally it was regretted that for a campaign which was to decide the destiny of France, the Emperor had seen fit to try out the strategic talents of Lauriston and Bertrand. The first was a good artillery officer, and the second an excellent engineer, but neither had directed troops in the field, and so lacked the experience needed to command an Army Corps.
Napoleon, recalling that when he was named as commander-in-chief of the army of Italy, he had hitherto commanded only some battalions, which had not prevented him from successfully filling the post, probably believed that Lauriston and Bertrand could do the same thing. But men of such universal talent as Napoleon are rare, and he could not hope that his new corps commanders could follow his example. It is thus that the personal affection which he felt for these generals led him to commit once more the error which he had previously made in giving command of an army to the artilleryman Marmont.
The history of past wars shows quite clearly that to be commander-in-chief, theoretical knowledge will not suffice, and with a very, very few exceptions, it is necessary to have served in an infantry or cavalry unit and to have commanded one in the rank of colonel, to be competent to direct masses of men in the field. This is a basic training which very few men can acquire as generals or as commanders of an army. Louis XIV never confided the command of troops in the open country to Marshal de Vauban, who was, however, one of the most able men of his century, and one presumes that if he had been offered the post Vauban would have turned it down in order to concentrate on his own specialty, which was the attack and defence of fortresses. Marmont and Bertrand, lacked this modesty, and the affection which Napoleon had for them prevented him from listening to any observations on the subject.
King Murat, who had gone to Naples after the Russian campaign, rejoined the Emperor at Dresden. The coalition, that is to say the Austrians, Russians and Prussians, opened the campaign with an act of bad faith, unworthy of civilised nations. Although under the terms of the previous convention, hostilities should not have begun until the 16th of August, they attacked our outposts on the 14th, and put the greater part of their forces in motion after the defection of Jomini.
Until this time, only the two Saxon generals, Thielmann and Langueneau, had, shamefully, changed sides, but no general wearing French uniform had sullied it in such a manner. It was a Swiss, General Jomini, who was the first to do so. Jomini was a simple clerk, on a salary of 1200 francs, in the ministerial offices of the Republic of Helvetia, when, in 1800, General Ney was sent to Berne by the First Consul to discuss with the Swiss government the defence of their state, which was then our ally. The duties of the clerk Jomini, which involved dealing with confidential government documents, put him in contact with General Ney, who was thus in a position to appreciate his outstanding ability, and, yielding to his urgent requests, he arranged for him to admitted as lieutenant, and shortly captain, in the Swiss regiment which was being formed to serve with the French army. General Ney took an increasing interest in his proteg. He had him enrolled as a French officer, took him as an aide-de-camp and gave him the means to publish works which he had written on the art of war, works which, although over-valued, are not without some merit.
Thanks to protection of this kind, Jomini advanced rapidly to the rank of colonel and brigadier-general, and at the resumption of hostilities in 1813 was chief-of-staff to Marshal Ney. Seduced, however, by the extravagant promises made by the Russians, he deserted, in possession of much information about Napoleon's plans of campaign. It was fear that on hearing of this defection Napoleon would change these plans, that induced the allies to commence hostilities two days before the date agreed for the ending of the armistice. To the surprise of everyone, the Emperor Alexander rewarded the treacherous Jomini by taking him as an aide-de-camp, which is said to have outraged the delicate susceptibilities of the Austrian Emperor.
The information which Jomini was able to give the allies was a serious blow to Napoleon, for several of his units were attacked in the course of moving into position and had to give up a number of important points for lack of time to prepare their defence. However, the Emperor, whose plan it was to move into Bohemia, finding that his opponents were forewarned and on their guard against this, resolved to attack the Prussian army in Silesia, and re-engage in the offensive those troops which had been compelled to retreat before Blcher. In consequence Napoleon arrived at Lwenberg on the 20th of August, where he attacked a considerable force of the allies consisting of Prussians, Austrians and Russians. Various actions took place on the 21st, 22nd and 23rd, in the areas of Goldberg,Graditzberg and Bunzlau. The enemy lost 7000 men killed or taken prisoner, and retired behind the Katzbach.
During one of the numerous engagements which took place during these three days, Wathiez's brigade, which was pursuing the enemy, was held up by a wide and swift-flowing stream, a tributary of the Bobr. There was no way of crossing except by two wooden bridges about a quarter of a mile apart, which were covered by Russian artillery fire. The 24th Chasseurs, who had passed into the command of the gallant Colonel Schneit, having received the order to attack the left hand bridge, advanced to the assault with their usual courage, but it was a different matter when it came to the 11th (Dutch) Hussars, recently incorporated into the brigade. Ordered to take the right hand bridge, their Colonel M. Ligeard, the only Frenchman in the unit, called in vain on his troops to follow him, they were so overcome by fear that not one of them moved. As my regiment, which was in the second line, was being subjected to as much fire as the 11th Hussars, I hastened to the side of their colonel to give him some help in urging his men to attack the enemy artillery, which was the only way of stopping the cannonade, but when I saw that I would have no success, and that the cowardice of the Hollanders would result in many casualties in my regiment, I led my troops to the front of them and was about to move into the attack when I saw the bridge on the left collapse under the first section of men from the 24th, throwing them into the river where several men and horses were drowned. The Russians, during their withdrawal had prepared this trap by sawing so cunningly through the main timbers supporting the bridge that, unless one were warned, it was impossible to see what had been done.
The sight of this disaster made me fear that the same treatment had been given to the bridge towards which I was leading my men, so I called a halt in order to arrange an inspection. This was a dangerous undertakingr, for not only was the bridge within range of the enemy guns, but it was also within range of the muskets of an infantry battalion. I was about to call for a volunteer for this perilous task, when warrant-officer Boivin, whom I had recently demoted for negligently allowing the Chasseur condemned to death to escape, got off his horse and coming to me said, rather than risking the life of one of his comrades, would I please permit him to carry out the mission, in order to redeem his mistake. Pleased with this courageous declaration, I said, "Go then, and you will recover your epaulets at the end of the bridge!"
Boivin went forward and, ignoring cannon-balls and bullets, he examined the superstructure of the bridge and its supports and returned to assure me that it was in order and that the regiment could cross. I thereupon re-instated him in his rank. He remounted his horse and placing himself at the head of the squadron which was about to cross the bridge he led the way towards the Russians, who did not wait for us to attack, but withdrew smartly. The month following, when the Emperor reviewed the regiment and awarded several promotions, I had Boivin made a sous-lieutenant.
Our new brigade commander, General Wathiez, was able during the these various actions to win the affection and regard of the troops. As for the divisional commander, General Exelmans, we knew only his reputation in army circles which was that of a man of outstanding bravery; but he was also regarded as being somewhat unreliable. We had proof of this in an event which occurred at the re-commencement of hostilities.
At a time when the division was carrying out a withdrawal, to which my regiment was giving cover, General Exelmans, on the pretext that he was about to lay a trap for the Prussian advance guard, ordered me to place at his disposal my elite company and 25 of my best marksmen, whom he put under the command of Major Lacour; then he put these 150 men in a meadow surrounded by woodland, and after telling them not to move without his permission, he went off and completely forgot them... The enemy arrived, and seeing the detachment abandoned in this manner, they halted, fearing that it had been put there to lure them into an ambush. To reassure themselves, they sent some individual men to slip into the wood, on the right and left, and when they heard no sound of gunfire, they gradually built up the number until they had completely surrounded our troopers. It was in vain that several officers pointed out to Major Lacour that this movement was going to cut off his retreat; Lacour, brave but lacking initiative, stuck rigidly to the order he had been given, without considering that General Exelmans might have forgotten him and that it might be as well to send someone to remind him, and at least to reconnoitre the terrain over which he might be able to retreat. He had been ordered to stay there, and he would stay there even if his men were killed or taken prisoner!
While Major Lacour was carrying out his instructions in the manner of a simple sergeant rather than that of a senior officer, the division marched into the distance. General Walthiez and I, when we saw that the detachment did not return, and not knowing how to contact General Exelmans, who was galloping across country, had serious misgivings. I then asked permission from General Walthiez to return to Major Lacour, and on receiving it I left at the gallop with a squadron and arrived just in time to see a most distressing sight, particularly for a commanding officer who cared for his soldiers.
The enemy, having infiltrated both flanks and even the rear of our detachment, had mounted a frontal attack by a greatly superior force, so that some 700 to 800 Prussian lancers surrounded our 150 men, whose only way of retreat was over a wretched footbridge of wooden planks which joined the two steep banks of a nearby mill-stream. Our horsemen could cross here only one by one so that there was congestion, and the elite company lost several men. A number of riders then noticed a large farmyard which they thought might lead to the mill-stream, and in the hope of finding a bridge they entered it, followed by the rest of the detachment. The stream did in fact, run past the farmyard, but it there formed the mill-pool, the banks of which were lined by slippery flagstones, making access extremely difficult for horses. This gave the enemy a great advantage, and in an attempt to capture all the French who had entered this huge yard, they closed the gates.
It was at this critical moment that I appeared on the other side of the stream with the squadron which I had hurriedly brought with me. I ordered them to dismount, and while one man held four horses, the rest, armed with their carbines, ran to the footbridge, which was guarded by a squadron of Prussians. The Prussians being on horseback and having only a few pistols as firearms, were unable to reply to the sustained fire from the carbines of our Chasseurs, and were forced to remove themselves to a distance of several hundred paces, leaving behind some forty dead and wounded.
The troops who had been shut in the farmyard wanted to take advantage of this momentary respite to force the main gate and make a rush for it on horseback; but I called to them not to attempt it, because to join me they would have had to cross the footbridge, which they could do only one by one, and at this point they would offer a target to the Prussians who would undoubtedly charge and destroy them. The river banks were garnished by many trees, amongst which an infantrymen can easily withstand the attacks of cavalry, so I placed the dismounted men along the riverside and once they were in communication with the mill's yard, I passed a message to the men there to dismount also, take their carbines, and while a hundred of them held off the enemy by their fire, the remainder could slip behind this protective screen and pass the horses from hand to hand over the footbridge.
While this manoeuvre, covered by the fire from a cordon of 180 dismounted Chasseurs, was proceeding in an orderly fashion, the Prussian lancers, furious that their prey was about to escape, tried to disorganise our retreat by a vigourous attack, but their horses, caught up in the willow branches, amid the numerous holes and pools of water, could scarcely move at a walk over the muddy ground, and could never reach our foot-soldiers, whose well aimed fire, directed at close range, inflicted on them heavy losses.
The Prussian major who led this charge, forcing his way boldly into the centre of our line, killed with a pistol shot to the head, Lieutenant Bachelet, one of my good regimental officers. I greatly regretted his loss, which was, however promptly revenged by the Chasseurs of his section, for the Prussian major, hit by several bullets, fell dead beside him.
The death of their leader, the numerous casualties they had suffered, and above all the impossibility of getting at us determined the enemy to give up the enterprise and they withdrew. I was able to pick up the wounded and make my retreat without being followed. My regiment lost in this deplorable affair an officer and nine troopers killed, and thirteen who were made prisoner, among whom was Lieutenant Marchal. The loss of these twenty-three members of the regiment I found all the more distressing because it served no useful purpose, and fell wholly on the finest soldiers in the unit, most of whom had been earmarked for decoration or promotion. I have never forgotten this undeserved setback. It resulted in our taking a poor view of General Exelmans, who got away with a reprimand from General Sbastiani and from the Emperor, who was influenced by his friendship with Murat. Old General Saint-Germain, a former commander, and almost the creator, of the 23rd Chasseurs, for whom he had retained much affection, having stated loudly that Exelmans deserved exemplary punishment, the two generals fell out and would have come to blows if the Emperor had not personally intervened. Major Lacour, whose incapacity had been largely responsible for this catastrophe, I no longer regarded with any confidence.
After the 21st, 22nd and 23rd of August, days on which we had defeated Field-marshal Blcher's corps, and forced him to retire behind the Katzbach, the Emperor gave orders for the follow-up on the next day. However, on hearing that the combined army of the allies, some 200,000 strong, commanded by Prince Schwartzenberg, had just emerged on the 22nd from the mountains of Bohemia and was heading for Saxony, Napoleon, taking his Guard as well as the cavalry of Latour-Maubourg and several divisions of infantry hastened by forced marches to Dresden, where Marshal Saint-Cyr had shut himself in with the troops he had hurriedly withdrawn from the camp at Pirna. On leaving Silesia the Emperor told Marshal Ney to follow him, and left Marshal Macdonald in charge of the large force which he left on the Bobr, that is to say the 3rd, 5th and 11th Infantry Corps and the 2nd cavalry, with a powerful element of artillery, making a total of 75,000 men. The control of such a great body of combatants was too much for Marshal Macdonald, as subsequent events will show.
You must have noticed that the larger the number of troops involved, the less detail I give of their movements: firstly because this could require an enormous work, which I might not be able to complete, and secondly because it could make the reading of these memoirs too wearisome. I shall therefore be even more concise in my description of events in the War of 1813, in which 600,000 to 700,000 men took part, than I have been in describing previous campaigns.
On the 25th of August, the allies having surrounded the town of Dresden, whose fortifications were not proof against a major attack, the position of Saint-Cyr became critical for he had no more than 17,000 French troops to resist the immense numbers of the enemy. The latter, badly served by their spies, were unaware of the approaching arrival of Napoleon, and full of confidence in their superior numbers, they delayed the attack until the following day. This confidence was increased when they were strengthened by two Westphalian regiments who had deserted from King Jrme to join the Austrians.
The worried Marshal Saint-Cyr expected to be attacked on the morning of the 26th; but he was reassured as to the outcome of the struggle by the presence of the Emperor, who had arrived that very day at an early hour, at the head of the Guard and a numerous body of all arms. Soon after his arrival, the enemy, who still thought that they faced only Saint-Cyr's Corps, assaulted the town in force and captured several redoubts. The Russians and the Prussians, who now controlled the suburbs of Pirna, were attempting to break down the Freyberg gate when on the Emperor's orders it swung open to allow the emergence of a column of infantry of the Imperial Guard, the leading brigade of which was commanded by General Cambronne...It was as if the head of Medusa had appeared... The enemy recoiled horrified, their guns were captured at the double and the gunners killed on their mountings. Simultaneous sorties were made from all the gates of Dresden with the same results, and the allies, abandoning the redoubts they had taken, fled into the surrounding country where they were pursued by the cavalry to the foot of the hills. On this first day the enemy had 5000 men put out of action, and we took 3000 prisoners. The French had 2500 killed or wounded, amongst the latter there being five generals.
The next day it was the French army which took the initiative, although they had 87,000 fewer men than their adversaries. The action was at first fierce and sanguinary; but the rain which fell in torrents on the heavy soil soon covered the battle-field with pools of muddy water through which our troops moved with much difficulty on their advance towards the enemy. Nevertheless, advance they did, and the Young Guard had already driven back the enemy left, when Napoleon, having observed that Prince Schwartzenberg, the allies' commander-in-chief, had not given sufficient support to his left wing, overwhelmed it with an attack by Marshal Victor's infantry and Latour-Maubourg's cavalry.
King Murat, who was in command of this part of the line, was highly successful. He forced his way through the pass of Cotta and outflanking Klenau's corps, he separated it from the Austrian army and attacked it, sabre in hand, at the head of his carabiniers and Cuirassiers. Klenau was unable to withstand this fearsome charge, almost all his battalions were compelled to surrender, and two other divisions of infantry suffered the same fate.
While Murat was defeating the enemy left, their right wing was routed by the Young Guard, so that after some three hours, victory was assured and the allies beat a retreat towards Bohemia.
As a result of this second day of heavy fighting, the enemy left on the field of battle 18 flags, 26 cannons and 40,000 men, of whom 20,000 were prisoners. The main losses were suffered by the Austrian infantry, who had two generals killed, three wounded and two taken prisoner.
It may be remarked that at this epoch percussion caps were virtually unknown, and the infantry of all nations still used flint-lock muskets, which it was almost impossible to fire once the priming powder became wet. Now, as it had rained without ceasing for the whole day, this contributed largely to the defeat of the enemy infantry by our cavalry, and gave rise to an extraordinary incident.
A division of Cuirassiers, commanded by General Bordesoulle, found itself facing a strong Austrian infantry division formed into a square. Bordesoulle called on the enemy general to surrender, which he refused to do. Bordesoulle then pointed out to the Austrian that not one of his men's guns was capable of being fired, to which he replied that his men could defend themselves successfully with their bayonets, as the cavalry, whose horses were in mud up to their hocks, would be unable to charge them down. "Then I will blast your square with my artillery" "But you don't have any guns, they are stuck in the mud." "If I show you my cannons, which are behind my first regiment, will you then surrender?" "I would have no alternative, for I would have no means of defence."
The French general then brought to within thirty paces of the enemy a battery of six guns, the gunners with their slow-matches in their hands prepared to fire on the square. At this sight the Austrian general and his division laid down their arms.
The rain having prevented the infantry of both armies from using their muskets and greatly slowed the movements of the cavalry, it was the artillery which, in spite of the difficulty of manoeuvering on the rain sodden ground, played a decisive rle. In particular the French artillery, whose teams of horses Napoleon had doubled up, using animals from the headquarters wagons, which remained safely in Dresden. Our guns did great damage; it was one of their cannon-balls which struck Moreau.
It had been rumoured for some time that the once illustrious French general had returned to Europe and had joined the ranks of his country's enemies. Few people believed this, but it was confirmed in the evening following the battle of Dresden in a bizarre manner. Our advance-guard was in pursuit of the routed enemy when one of our Hussars saw, on entering the village of Notnitz, a magnificent Great Dane, which seemed to be searching in distress for its owner.
He took hold of the dog, and read on its collar the words "I belong to General Moreau." He was then told by the cur of the village that that General Moreau had undergone a double amputation in his house. A French cannon-ball had landed in the middle of the Russian general staff, it had struck one of the General's legs, and going through his horse had then struck the other. This had happened at the moment when the Austrian army had been defeated, and to prevent Moreau falling into French hands, the Emperor Alexander had arranged for him to be carried by some Grenadiers until, the pursuit having slackened, it was possible to dress his wounds and amputate both legs. The Saxon cur, who had witnessed this cruel operation, said that Moreau, who was well aware that his life was in danger, had repeatedly cursed the fate that had left him mortally wounded by a French missile, amongst the enemies of his country. He died on the 1st of September, and the Russians took away his body.
No one in the French army regretted the death of Moreau when it was known that he had taken arms against his country. A Russian envoy came to claim the dog on behalf of Colonel Rapatel, Moreau's aide-de-camp, who had stayed with him. It was returned but without the collar which was given to the King of Saxony and is now on display in Dresden.
As Prince Schwartzenberg, the commander of the enemy troops defeated at Dresden, had given Teplice as the rallying point for the remains of his defeated armies, the Austrians retreated through the valley of Dippoldiswalde, the Russians and the Prussians on the Telnitz road and the remnants of Klenau's corps via Freiberg. Napoleon accompanied the French columns which were pursuing the vanquished enemy as far as Pirna, but just before he arrived in that town, he was taken by a sudden indisposition, due perhaps to the fact that he had spent five days constantly on horseback, exposed to incessant rain.
It is one of the misfortunes of princes that there are always to be found in their entourage people who, to demonstrate their attachment, claim to be alarmed at the slightest indisposition and exaggerate the precautions which should be taken, which is what happened on this occasion. The master-of-horse, Caulaincourt, advised the Emperor to return to Dresden, and the other great officers dared not give the much more sensible advice to continue to Pirna, which was no more than a league distant. The Young Guard was already there and the Emperor would have been able to have the rest which he required while remaining in a position to guide the movements of the troops in pursuit of the enemy, which he could not do from Dresden which was much further from the center of operations.
Napoleon then left to Marshals Mortier and Saint-Cyr the task of supporting General Vandamme, commander of 1st Corps, who, detached from the Grande Arme for three days, had defeated a Russian corps and now threatened the enemy rear. He had cut the road from Dresden to Prague and occupied Peterswalde, from where he dominated the Kulm basin and the town of Teplice, a most important point through which the allies had to make their retreat. However the return of the Emperor to Dresden nullified these successes and led to a disastrous reverse which contributed greatly to the fall of the Empire.
General Vandamme was fine and courageous officer who, already well-known from the earliest wars of the revolution, had been almost continually in command of various Corps during those of the empire; so that it was surprising that he had not yet been awarded the baton of a marshal; withheld perhaps because of his brusque and abrupt manner. His detractors said, after his defeat, that his desire to obtain this coveted honour had driven him, with no more than 20,000 men, to stand rashly in the path of 200,000 of the enemy, with the aim of barring their passage; but the truth is that having been informed by the Emperor's chief of staff that he would be supported by the armies of Marshals Saint-Cyr and Mortier, and been given a direct order to capture Teplice and so seal off the enemy's line of retreat, General Vandamme had perforce to obey.
Under the impression that he would be supported he descended boldly, on the 29th of August, towards Kulm from where, pushing enemy troops before him, he sought to reach Teplice; it is a certainty that if Mortier and Saint-Cyr had carried out the orders which they had been given, the Russian, Austrian and Prussian forces, stuck on the appalling roads, cut off from Bohemia and finding themselves attacked in front and in the rear, would have laid down their arms. Vandamme would have then been eulogised by the same people who have since blamed him.
However that may be, Vandamme arrived at Teplice on the morning of the 30th of August to be confronted by the division of Ostermann, one of the best of the Russian generals. Vandamme went confidently into the attack, as he saw, coming down from the heights of Peterwalde, and taking the route which he had taken the day previously, a body of troops which he took to be the armies of Mortier and Saint-Cyr, whose help the Emperor had promised him; but instead of friends these newcomers were two large Prussian divisions commanded by General Kleist, which, on the advice of Jomini, had passed between the corps of Mortier and Saint-Cyr without these two marshals taking any notice, such was the reluctance of Saint-Cyr to go to the aid of one of his colleagues. A reluctance which, on this occasion, spread to General Mortier. Neither of them budged and this at a time when their co-operation joined to the gallant efforts of Vandamme would have led to the total defeat of the enemy, whose columns of infantry, cavalry, artillery and baggage were piled up in disorder in the narrow passes of the high mountains which lie between Silesia and Bohemia.
In place of the help he was expecting, General Vandamme saw appear the two divisions of General Kleist, which instantly attacked him. Vandamme, continuing to fight the Russians of Ostermann in front of Teplice, turned round his rear-guard to face Kleist, whom he attacked furiously, but although the enemy was weakening, the huge reinforcements which they recieved, bringing their strength to around 100,000 men as opposed to Vandamme's remaining 15,000, made him think, in spite of his courage and tenacity, that he should retire towards the corps of Mortier and Saint-Cyr, whom he believed to be close at hand in accordance with what Prince Berthier had written to him on the Emperor's instructions.
On their arrival at the pass of Telnitz, the French found it occupied by General Kleist's divisions, who completely blocked their passage; but nevertheless, our battalions, preceded by the cavalry of General Corbineau who, in spite of the rough, mountainous terrain, had insisted on remaining the advance-guard, fell on the Prussians with such ferocity that they overcame them and broke through the pass after taking all the enemy guns, from which they took away only the horses because of the bad state of the roads.
Any soldier will be aware that such a success could be won only at the cost of many casualties, and after this savage engagement the strength of 1st Corps was greatly reduced. However, Vandamme, completely surrounded by forces ten times more numerous than his own, refused to surrender and placing himself at the head of two battalions of the 85th, the only ones left to him, he hurled himself into the midst of the enemy in a fight to the death. His horse was killed and a group of Russians seized him and made him prisoner. It is said that he was brought before the Emperor Alexander and his brother, the Grand Duke Constantin, and was rash enough to exchange insults with them. He was then taken to Wintka, on the frontier of Siberia, and did not see his country again until after the peace of 1814.
The battle of Kulm cost 1st Corps 2000 men killed and 8000 made prisoner, amongst whom was their commanding general. The 10,000 who were left managed to fight their way through the enemy lines to join Saint-Cyr and Mortier. Those two generals had gravely failed in their duty by not pursuing the beaten enemy and instead stopping - Saint-Cyr at Reinhards-Grimme and Mortier at Pirna - where they could hear the noise of the battle being fought by Vandamme.
It is surprising that from nearby Dresden Napoleon did not send one of his aides-de-camp, to make certain that Saint-Cyr and Mortier had gone to the aid of Vandamme, as he had ordered. The two marshals, having failed to carry out their orders, should have been court-martialled, but the French army, overwhelmed by the enormous number of enemies which Napoleon had raised against it, had reached such a point of exhaustion that had Napoleon wished to punish all those who failed in their duty, he would have had to dispense with the services of almost all his marshals. He therefore did no more than reprimand Saint-Cyr and Mortier.
He had an increasing need to conceal his disasters, for it was not only at Kulm that his troops had suffered a reverse, but at all points of the immense line which they occupied.
(Subsequent historical research has made it quite clear that as Napoleon was in control of the operations the two marshals were entirely correct in waiting to receive his instructions, as they did not know to where he intended them to go. As for the order to support Vandamme with two divisions, it did not arrive until the 30th, that is to say at a time when the catastrophe had already occurred, and no blame can be attributed to the marshals.)
It has been rightly said that in the last campaigns of the Empire , battles were rarely fought with any skill unless Napoleon himself was in command. It is regrettable that this great captain was not fully aware of this, and placed too much confidence in his lieutenants, of whom several were not up to the tasks which they presumed to undertake, as will be seen from some examples. Instead of ordering his corps commanders, when they were acting on their own initiative, to remain as much as possible on the defensive until he could come with a powerful reserve to crush the force facing them, the Emperor allowed them too much latitude, and as each one was jealous of his own reputation and wanted to have his personal Battle of Austerlitz, they often went ill-advisedly on the offensive and were defeated as a result.