This is what happened to Marshal Oudinot, to whom Napoleon had given a considerable army made up of the Corps of Bertrand and Reynier, in order to keep a watch on the numerous Prussian and Swedish troops stationed near Berlin under the command of Bernadotte, who had now become the Prince of Sweden. Marshal Oudinot was not as strong as his opponent and should have temporised, but the habit of advancing, the sight of the steeples of Berlin and the fear of not living up to the confidence Napoleon reposed in him, led him to push forward Bertrand's corps, which was repulsed, a setback which did not prevent Oudinot from persisting in his aim of taking Berlin. However he lost a major battle at Gross-Beeren and was forced to retire via Wittemberg, having suffered heavy losses.
A few days later, Marshal Macdonald, whom Napoleon had left on the Katzbach at the head of several army corps, thought that he also would take advantage of the liberty given him by the absence of the Emperor to attempt to win a battle, which would compensate for the bloody defeat which he had endured on the Trbia during the Italian campaign of 1799, but once more he was defeated.
Macdonald, although personally very brave, was constantly unfortunate in battle, not that he lacked ability but because, like the generals of the Austrian army, and in particular the famous Marshal Mack, he was too rigid and blinkered in his strategic movements. Before the battle he drew up a plan of action which was almost always sound, but which he should have modified according to circumstances; this, however, his stolid temperament did not permit. He was like a chess player who, when he plays against himself, can make all the right moves, but does not know what to do when a real opponent makes moves which he had not foreseen. So, on the 26th of August, the day on which the Emperor was winning a resounding victory at Dresden, Macdonald lost the battle of Katzbach.
The French army, 75,000 strong, of which my regiment was a part, was drawn up between Liegnitz and Goldberg, on the left bank of the little river named the Katzbach,(Kaczawa) which separated them from several Prussian Corps commanded by Field-Marshal Blcher. The area which we occupied was dotted with small wooded hills, which, although practicable for cavalry, made movement difficult, but, by the same token, offered much advantage to the infantry. Now, as the main body of Macdonald's troops consisted of this arm, and he had only 6000 cavalry of Sbastiani's Corps, and as the enemy had 15 to 20,000 horse on the immense plateau of Jaur,(Jawor) where the ground is almost everywhere level, it was plainly Macdonald's duty to await the Prussians in the position which he occupied. In addition to this, the Katzbach does not have a steep approach on the left bank, where we were, but on the other side it does, so that to reach the plateau of Jaur one has to climb a high hill covered with rocks and affording only a steep and stony road.
The Katzbach, which runs at the foot of this hill has no bridges except at the few villages and only some narrow fords, which become unpassable on the least rise in the water-level. This river covered the French army front, which was greatly in our favour; but Marshal Macdonald wanted to attack the Prussians, and he abandoned this highly advantageous position and put the Katzbach at his back by ordering his troops to cross it at several points. Sbastiani's cavalry, of which Exelmans' division, which included my regiment, formed a part, were instructed to cross the river by the ford at Chemochowitz.
The weather, which was already threatening in the morning, should have warned the Marshal to put off the attack to another day, or at least to act rapidly. He did neither, and wasted precious time in giving detailed orders so that it was not until two in the afternoon that his columns began to move, and no sooner had they done so than they were overtaken by a tremendous storm which swelled the Katzbach and made the ford so difficult that General Saint-Germain's Cuirassiers were unable to cross.
Having arrived on the other bank, we climbed, by a narrow gully, a very steep slope which the rain had made so slippery that the horses were falling at every step. We had to dismount and did not get back into the saddle until we had reached the great plateau which dominates the valley of the Katzbach. There we found several divisions of our infantry, which the generals had wisely placed near the clumps of trees which are scattered over this plain; for, as I have said, the enemy were far stronger than us in cavalry, and had a further advantage in that the rain had made it impossible for the infantrymen to fire their weapons.
When we had arrived on this vast open space, we were astonished to see no signs of the enemy. The complete silence that reigned there seemed to me to conceal some kind of a trap, for we were certain that on the previous night Marshal Blcher was in this position with more than 100,000 men. It was, in my view, necessary to reconnoitre the countryside thoroughly before going any further. General Sbastiani thought differently; so as soon as Rousel d'Urbal's division was formed up, he despatched them into the distance, with not only their own guns but those belonging to Exelmans' division, which we had dragged onto the plateau with so much difficulty.
As soon as Exelmans, who had been separated from his troops, rejoined us as we emerged from the gully, and saw that Sbastiani had made off with his guns, he hurried after him to reclaim them, leaving his division without orders. The two brigades of which it was composed were some five hundred paces from one another, facing the same way and formed into columns by regiment. My regiment was at the head of Wathiez's brigade and had behind it the 24th Chasseurs. The 11th Hussars were in the rear.
The plateau of Jaur is so huge that although the Roussel d'Urbal division, which had gone ahead, was made up of seven regiments of cavalry, we could scarcely see them on the horizon. A thousand paces to the right of the column of which I was a part, was one of the clumps of trees which dot the plain. If my regiment had been on its own I would certainly have had this wood searched by a platoon; but as Exelmans, who was very jealous of his authority, had established it as a rule that no one was to leave the ranks without his order, I had not dared to take the usual precautions, and for the same reason the general commanding the brigade had felt obliged to do the same. This passive obedience was nearly fatal.
I was at the head of my regiment which, as I have said, was leading the column, when I suddenly heard a great outcry behind me; this arose from an unforeseen attack by a numerous body of Prussian lancers who, emerging unexpectedly from the wood, charged the 24th Chasseurs and the 11th Hussars, whom they took on the flank and threw into the greatest disorder. The enemy charge being on the oblique, had first struck the tail of the column, then the centre and was now threatening the head. My regiment was about to be hit on the right flank. The situation was critical, for the enemy was advancing rapidly. Confident in the courage and skill of all ranks of my cavalrymen, I ordered them to form line facing right at the full gallop.
This movement, so dangerous in the presence of the enemy, was carried out with such speed and accuracy that in the blink of an eye the regiment was in line facing the Prussians who, as they approached us obliquely, exposed a flank, which our squadrons took advantage of to get among their ranks where they effected great carnage.
When they saw the success obtained by my regiment, the 24th recovered from the surprise attack which had at first disorganised them, and rallying smartly they repelled the part of the enemy line which faced them. As for the 11th Hussars, composed entirely of Hollanders whom the Emperor had believed he could turn into Frenchmen by a simple decree, their commander found it impossible to lead them into a charge. But we were able to do without the assistance of these useless soldiers, for the 23rd and the 24th were enough to rout the three Prussian regiments which had attacked us.
While our Chasseurs were pursuing them, an elderly enemy colonel who had been unhorsed, recognising my rank by my epaulets, and fearing that he might be killed by one of my men, came to take refuge beside me where, in spite of the excitement of the action, no one would dare to strike him while he was under my protection. Although he was on foot, in the clinging mud, he followed for a quarter of an hour the hurried movements of my horse, supporting himself by a hand on my knee and repeating all the time "You are my guardian angel" I was truly sorry for the old fellow, for although he was dropping with fatigue he was unwilling to leave me, so when I saw one of my men leading a captured horse, I had him lend it to the Prussian colonel , whom I sent to the rear in the charge of a trusted Sous-officier. You will see that this enemy officer was not slow in showing his gratitude.
The plateau of Jaur now became the theatre for a desperate struggle. From each of the woods there emerged a horde of Prussians, so that the plain was soon covered by them. My regiment, whose pursuit of their opponents I had been unable to slow down, found itself before long facing a brigade of enemy infantry, whose muskets put out of action by the rain, could not fire a shot at us. I tried to break the Prussian square, but our horses, bogged down in the mud to their hocks, could move only at a slow walk, and without the weight of a charge it is almost impossible for cavalry to penetrate the close-packed ranks of infantry who, calm and well led, present a hedge of bayonets. We could go close enough to the enemy to speak with them and strike their muskets with the blades of our sabres, but we could never break through their lines, something which we could have done easily if General Sbastiani had not sent our brigade artillery elsewhere.
Our situation and that of the enemy infantry was really rather ridiculous for we were eye to eye without being able to inflict the least harm, our sabres being too short to reach the enemy, whose muskets could not be fired. We remained in this state for a considerable time, until General Maurin, the commander of a neighbouring brigade, sent the 6th Regiment of Lancers to help us. Their long weapons, outreaching the bayonets of the Prussians killed many of them and allowed not only the Lancers but also the Chasseurs of the 23rd and 24th to get into the enemy square, where they did great carnage. During the fighting, one could hear the sonorous voice of Colonel Perquit shouting in a very pronounced Alsation accent "Bointez! Lanciers, Bointez!"
The victory which we had won on this part of the vast battlefield was snatched from us by the unexpected arrival of more than 20,000 of Prussian cavalry who, after overwhelming the Roussel d'Urbal division, which had been so unwisely sent alone more than a league ahead of us, now came to attack us with infinitely greater numbers.
The approach of this enormous body of enemy troops was signalled by the arrival of General Exelmans who, as I have said, had briefly left his division to go almost unaccompanied to claim back from General Sbastiani his battery of artillery, which that General had so inappropriately despatched to join that of Roussel d'Urbal. Having been unable to find General Sbastiani, he arrived close to the leading division only to witness the capture of Roussel d'Urbal's guns and also his own, and to find himself involved in the utter rout of his colleague's squadrons. We had a warning of some disaster in the sight of our General, his appearance altered by the fact that he had lost his hat and even his belt. We hastened to recall our soldiers, who were busy sabring the enemy infantry which we had just broken into, but while we were engaged in forming them up in good order we were completely overrun by the many Prussian squadrons who were pursuing the debris of d'Urbal's division.
Instantly, Sbastiani's cavalry division, consisting at the most of 5 to 6000 men was confronted by 20,000 enemy horsemen who, as well as outnumbering us, had the advantage of being almost all of them Uhlans, that is to say armed with lances, while we had only a few such squadrons. So in spite of the stiff resistance which we put up, the groups which we formed were broken up by the Prussians, who drove us steadily back to the edge of the plain and to the verge of the steep descent into the gorge, at the bottom of which ran the river Katzbach.
We were met here by two divisions of French infantry, together with which we hoped to make a stand; but the muskets of our men were so wet that they would not fire, and they had no other means of defence but a battery of six guns and their bayonets, with which they momentarily arrested the Prussian cavalry; but the Prussian generals having brought up some twenty cannons, the French guns were instantly disabled and their battalions crushed. Then, cheering loudly, the twenty thousand enemy cavalry advanced on our troops and drove them in confusion towards the Katzbach.
This river which we had crossed in the morning with so much difficulty although it was not very deep, had been transformed into a raging torrent by the pouring rain which had continued ceaslessly throughout the whole day. The water, surging between the two banks, covered almost entirely the parapet of the bridge at Chemochowitz and made it impossible to discover if the ford at that point was still passable. However it was by those two points we had crossed in the morning, and it was to them that we went. The ford proved impassable for the infantry and a number were drowned there, but the great majority were saved by the bridge.
I gathered together my regiment, as much as was possible, and having been formed into tightly packed half-platoons which could give each other mutual support, they entered the water in reasonably good order and gained the other bank with the loss of only two men. All the other cavalry units took the same route, for in spite of the confusion inseparable from such a retreat, the troopers realised that the bridge had to be left for the infantry. I must confess that the descent of the slope was one of the most critical moments in my life... The very steep hillside was slippery under our horses feet, and they stumbled at every pace over numerous outcrops of rock. In addition, the constant hail of grape-shot which was hurled from the enemy guns made our position highly precarious. I came out of this without any personal accident, thanks to the courage, determination, and skill of my excellent Turkish horse, which by walking along the edge of precipices like a cat on a roof, saved my life, not only on this occasion but on several others. I shall mention this admirable creature later.
The French infantry and cavalry who had been driven down from the Jaur plateau thought themselves safe from their enemies once they had crossed the river, but the Prussians had sent a strong column to a bridge upstream of that at Chemochowitz, where they had crossed the Katzbach, so that having arrived on the bank which we had quitted in the morning, we were astonished to be attacked by squadrons of Uhlans. However, in spite of the surprise, several regiments, among which Marshal Macdonald in his report mentioned mine, unhesitatingly attacked the enemy...Nonetheless, I do not know what would have happened without the arrival of the division of General Saint-Germain. He had remained on the left bank of the river in the morning, and having in consequence taken no part in the fighting, found himself in full readiness to come to our aid. This division composed of two regiments of carabiniers, a brigade of Cuirassiers, and with six twelve pounders, fell furiously on the enemy and drove back into the river all those who had crossed with the aim of cutting off our retreat, and as there is nothing so terrible as troops who, having suffered a setback, resume the offensive, the troopers of Exelmanns' and d'Urbal's divisions slaughtered all whom they could reach.
This counter-attack did us much good, for it halted the enemy who, for that day, did not dare to follow us across the Katzbach. However, the French army suffered an immense disaster, for Marshal Macdonald having crossed the river by all the bridges and fords which there were between Liegnitz and Goldberg, that is to say on a line of more than five leagues, now found nearly all these crossing points cut off by flooding, the French army was extended in a long line with the Prussians at their back and facing an almost uncrossable river, so that the frightful scenes which I had witnessed on the Jaur plateau were reproduced at all points of the field of battle. Everywhere the rain prevented our infantry from firing and aided the attacks of the Prussian cavalry, four times more numerous than ours. Everywhere retreat was made highly perilous by the difficulty of crossing the flooded Katzbach. Most of those who tried to swim across were drowned, Brigadier-general Sibuet being among their number. We were able to save only a few pieces of artillery.
After the unhappy affair at the Katzbach, Marshal Macdonald, in an attempt to re-unite his troops, indicated as rallying points the towns of Bunzlau, Lauban, and Gorlitz. A pitch-dark night, rutted roads and continuous torrential rain made movement slow and very difficult; and many soldiers, particularly those of our allies, went astray or lagged behind.
Napoleon's army lost at the battle of the Katzbach 13,000 men killed or drowned, 20,000 prisoners and 50 cannons. A veritable calamity. Marshal Macdonald, whose faulty tactics had led to this irreparable catastrophe, although he forfeited the confidence of the army, was able to retain his personal esteem by the frankness and loyalty with which he admitted to his mistakes; for the day following the disaster he called together all the generals and colonels, and after engaging us to do all we could to maintain order, he said that every officer and man had done his duty, and there was only one person who was responsible for the loss of the battle, and that was himself; because, in view of the rain, he should not have left a well-broken terrain to go and attack, in a vast open space, an enemy who squadrons greatly outnumbered our own, nor, during a rain-storm, have put a river at his back. This contrite admission disarmed the critics, and everyone buckled to in order to help save the army, which retreated towards the Elbe via Bautzen.
Fate now seemed to be against us; for a few days after Marshal Oudinot had lost the battle of Gross-Beeren, Macdonald that of the Katzbach and Vandamme that of Kulm, the French forces suffered another major reverse. Marshal Ney, who had succeeded Oudinot in command of the troops who were destined to march on Berlin, not having a sufficiently powerful force to accomplish this difficult task, was defeated at Jutterbach (Jterbog) by the turncoat Bernadotte, and compelled to quit the right bank of the Elbe.
The Emperor came back to Dresden with his Guard. The various units under the command of Macdonald took up positions not far from that town, while Marshal Ney, having pushed back the Swedes to the right bank, concentrated his troops on the left bank at Dassau and Wittemberg. For almost a fortnight, between the end of September and the beginning of October, the French army remained almost motionless around Dresden. My regiment was in bivouac close to Veissig on the heights of Pilnitz, which were occupied by a division of infantry supported by the cavalry of Sbastiani and Exelmans.
Although there was no official armistice, the weariness of both sides led to a de facto suspension of hostilities, from which both parties profited to prepare for new and more terrible conflicts.
While we were in camp at Pilnitz, I received a letter from the colonel of Prussian cavalry to whom I had lent a horse after he had been captured and injured by the men of my regiment at the start of the battle of the Katzbach. This senior officer, named M. de Blankense, who had been freed by his own troops when things turned against us, was nonetheless grateful for what I had done, and to prove it he sent me ten Chasseurs and a lieutenant belonging to my regiment who had been left wounded on the battlefield and taken prisoner. M. de Blankense had seen that their wounds were dressed, and after caring for them for a fortnight he had obtained permission to have them led to the French outposts, with a thousand thanks to me, for having, as he assured me, saved his life. I believe he was right, but I was still touched by this expression of thanks from one of the leaders of our opponents.
During the time we were in this camp there took place a strange event which was witnessed by all the regiments. A corporal of the 4th Chasseurs, while drunk, had shown disrespect to an officer, and a Lancer of the 6th whose horse had bitten him and would not let go had struck it in the belly with some scissors which led to its death. Certainly the two men deserved to be punished, but only by proper disciplinary procedures. General Exelmans condemned them both to death on his own authority, and having ordered that the division should mount their horses, he drew them up in a huge square, one side of which was left open, where two graves were dug, to the side of which the two convicted men were led.
I had been away all night and returned to the camp in time to see these lugubrious preparations. I had no doubt that the prisoners had been tried and condemned, but I soon learned that this was not the case, and drawing near to a group formed by General Exelmans, the two brigadiers and all the regimental commanders, I heard M. Devence, Colonel of the 4th Chasseurs, and Colonel Perquit of the 6th Lancers beg General Exelmans to pardon the two culprits. General Exelmans refused to do so.
I have never been able to see an act which I consider unjust without expressing my indignation. It was perhaps wrong of me, but I addressed Colonels Devence and Perquit saying that it was an affront to their dignity that men of their regiments should be paraded through the camp as criminals when they had not had a proper trial, and I added "The Emperor has given no one the power of life or death, and has reserved for himself the right to grant pardon".
General Exelmans was sufficiently influenced by the effect produced by my outburst to announce that he would pardon the Chasseur of the 4th, but that the Lancer would be shot; that is to say he would pardon the soldier who had been disrespectful to his officer, but condemn to execution the one who had killed a horse.
In order to carry out this execution each regiment was asked to provide two N.C.O.s. but as they did not carry muskets, they would have to use those belonging to other soldiers. When this order reached me, I did not reply to my regimental sergeant-major, who took my meaning; so that no one from the 23rd presented himself to take part in the execution. General Exelmans noticed this but said nothing. Eventually a shot rang out, and all those present muttered with indignation. Exelmans ordered that, as was usual, the troops would be marched past the corpse. The march began. My regiment was second in the column and I was in some doubt whether I should make it march past the unlucky victim of Exelmans' severity when a great burst of laughter was heard from the 24th Chasseurs, who were in front of me and had already arrived at the scene of the execution. I sent a warrant officer to find out the cause of this unseemly mirth in the presence of the dead, and I soon discovered that the dead man was in remarkably good health!
The truth was that all that had happened was a theatrical performance staged to scare any soldiers who were tempted to indiscipline; a performance which included shooting a man with blanks. To keep the operation secret from the rank and file, our chief had formed the firing squad of sous-officiers, to whom he had issued the blank cartridges. However, to complete the illusion it was necessary for the troops to view the body, and Exelmans had told the Lancer who was to play the part to throw himself on his face at the sound of the shots and pretend to be dead, then to leave the army the next night, dressed as a peasant and with a sum of money which he had been given for the purpose; but the soldier who was a sharp-witted Gascon, had realised perfectly well that General Exelmans was exceeding his authority, and had no more right to have him shot without trial than he had to dismiss him from the army without a proper discharge, and so he remained standing when the shots were fired and refused to leave the camp without a pass which would guarantee him from arrest by the gendarmerie.
When I learned that it was this discussion between the General and the dead man which had produced the shouts of laughter from the 24th Chasseurs at the head of the column, I thought it better that my regiment did not take part in this comedy which seemed to me to be as much contrary to discipline as the misdemeanors it was supposed to punish or prevent. I therefore turned my squadrons about, and setting off at the trot I left this unhelpful scene and, returning to the camp, I ordered them to dismount. My example was followed by all the brigadiers and regimental commanders of the division, and Exelmans was left alone with the "dead man", who set off calmly down the road to the bivouac, where he tucked into a meal with his comrades amid much more laughter.
During our stay on the plateau of Pilnitz, the enemy, and above all the Russians, received many reinforcements, the main one, led by General Benningsen was of not less than 60,000 men, and was composed of the corps of Doctoroff and Tolsto and the reserve of Prince Labanoff. This reserve came from beyond Moscow and included in its ranks a large number of Tartars and Baskirs, armed only with bows and arrows.
I have never understood with what aim the Russian government brought from so far and at such great expense these masses of irregular cavalry, who having neither sabres nor lances nor any kind of firearm, were unable to stand up against trained soldiers, and served only to strip the countryside and starve the regular forces, which alone were capable of resisting a European enemy. Our soldiers were not in the least alarmed at the sight of these semi-barbarous Asiatics, whom they nick-named cupids, because of their bows and arrows.
Nevertheless, these newcomers, who did not yet know the French, had been so indoctrinated by their leaders, almost as ignorant as themselves, that they expected to see us take flight at their approach; and so they could not wait to attack us. From the very day of their arrival in sight of our troops they launched themselves in swarms against them, but having been everywhere repulsed by gunfire, the Baskirs left a great number of dead on the ground.
These losses far from calming their frenzy, seemed to excite them still more, for without any order and in all directions, they buzzed around us like a swarm of wasps, flying all over the place and being very hard to catch, but when our cavalry did catch them they effected a fearful massacre, our lances and sabres being immensely superior to their bows and arrows. All the same, as the attacks by these barbarians were incessant and the Russians supported them with detachments of Hussars to profit from the confusion which the Baskirs could create at various points on the line, the Emperor ordered the generals to be doubly watchful, and to make frequent visits to our advance posts.
Now both sides were preparing to renew hostilities which, as I have already said, had not been suspended by any agreement, but simply de facto. All was completely peaceful in my camp, and I had as usual taken off my coat and was preparing to shave in the open air before a little mirror nailed to a tree, when I was given a slap on the shoulder. As I was in the middle of my regiment, I turned round sharply to see who had used this familiarity with his commanding officer...I found myself facing the Emperor, who, wishing to examine some neighbouring positions without arousing the enemy, had arrived with only one aide-de-camp. As he was not accompanied by a detachment of his Guard, he was followed by squadrons chosen in equal numbers from all the regiments in the division, and having, on his orders, taken command of this escort, I spent the entire day at his side, and have nothing but praise for his kindliness.
When we were preparing to return to Pilnitz, we saw a horde of Baskirs hurrying towards us, with all the speed of their little Tartar horses. The Emperor, who had never before seen troops of this sort, stopped on a hillock and asked for the capture of some prisoners. To this end, I ordered two squadrons of my regiment to hide behind a clump of trees, while the remainder continued their march. This well-known ruse would not have deceived Cossacks, but it succeeded perfectly with the Baskirs, who have not the slightest notion of tactics. They passed close to the wood without sending anyone to inspect it, and were continuing to follow the column when they were unexpectedly attacked by our squadrons who, falling on them suddenly, killed a great number and took some thirty prisoners.
I had these brought to the Emperor, who, after examining them expressed his surprise at the spectacle of these wretched horsemen who were sent, with no other arms than bows and arrows, to fight European soldiers armed with sabres, lances, guns and pistols... These Tartar Baskirs had Chinese features and wore extravagant costumes. When we got back to the camp, my Chasseurs amused themselves by giving wine to the Baskirs who, delighted with this novel reception got drunk and expressed their joy by such extraordinary grimaces and capers that all the watchers, including Napoleon, were in fits of laughter.
On the 28th of September, after reviewing our army corps, the Emperor treated me with quite exceptional benevolence, for although he very rarely gave more than one reward at a time, he created me an officer of the Legion of Honour, a Baron, and awarded me a grant of money...He loaded favours on the regiment, saying that it was the only one of Sbastiani's corps which had maintained good order at the Katzbach, had captured some enemy guns and had driven off the Prussians whenever they met them.
The 23rd Chasseurs owed this distinction to the high praise of its conduct received by the Emperor from Marshal Macdonald who, after the debacle at the Katzbach, had sought refuge in the ranks of my regiment and had taken part in the fierce charges it made to drive the enemies back across the river.
After the review, when the troops were on the road to their camp, General Exelmans came to the front of the regiment and loudly complemented them for the recognition given by the Emperor to their courage. Then, turning to me, he embarked on a veritable, and exaggerated, eulogy of their colonel.
The French army now was concentrated in the area of Leipzig. All the enemy forces also proceeded to the town, around which their great number allowed them to form a huge circle, which contracted every day, and whose aim was obviously to hem in the French troops and cut off all means of retreat.
On the 14th of October there was a sharp encounter between the Austro-Russian advance-guard and our own; but after an indecisive result, both sides returned to their previous positions, and the action ended with one of the most ridiculous features of war, a cannonade which went on until nightfall, with no result but the loss of many men's lives.
The Emperor, after leaving at Dresden a garrison of 25,000 men commanded by Marshal Saint-Cyr, came to Leipzig, where he arrived on the morning of the 15th.
The exact details of the battle of Leipzig will never be known, partly because of the extent and complexity of the area over which fighting continued for several days, and partly because of the immense number of troops of different nations which took part in this memorable encounter. It is principally the documents relating to the French army which are missing, because several commanders of army corps and divisions, and some members of the general staff, having been killed or left in enemy hands, most of their reports have never been finished, and those which have been, reflect the inevitable haste and disorder surrounding their compilation. At Leipzig I was the colonel of a regiment, a part of a division whose movements I was bound to follow, so it was not possible for me to know what was happening elsewhere in the manner which it had been in previous campaigns, when as an aide-de-camp to various marshals, I was able to acquire a general view of operations while carrying orders to different parts of the battlefield. I must therefore, more than ever, limit my description to what is absolutely necessary for an understanding of the main events of the battle of Leipzig, the outcome of which had such a profound influence on the destinies of the Emperor, of France and of Europe.
The iron circle within which the allies were preparing to enclose the French army, had not yet completely surrounded Leipzig, when the King of Wurtemburg, a man of violence but honourable, thought it his duty to warn Napoleon that the whole of Germany, incited by the English, was about to rise against him, and that he had barely sufficient time to retire with the French troops behind the river Main, before all of the German Confederation abandoned him to join his enemies. He added that he himself, King of Wurtemburg, could not avoid doing likewise, as he was forced to accede to the demands of his subjects, who clamoured for him to go with the torrent of German public opinion and, breaking with Napoleon, range himself with the enemies of France.
The Emperor, shaken by this advice from the most able and most faithful of his allies, is said to have considered retiring towards the mountains of Thuringia and Hesse, to get behind the river Saale and there wait for the allies to attack him, where they would be at a disadvantage on the difficult terrain, heavily wooded and full of narrow passes.
This plan could have saved Napoleon; but it had to be executed quickly, before the enemy armies were completely united and near enough to attack us during the retreat. However, when it came to deciding to abandon a part of his conquests, the Emperor could not make up his mind. He was most unwilling to have it thought that he considered himself defeated because he sought refuge behind these inaccessible mountains. The over-boldness of this great captain was our undoing; he did not stop to consider that his army, weakened by numerous losses, contained in its ranks many foreigners who were waiting only for a favourable opportunity to betray him, and that it was liable to be overwhelmed by superior forces in the great open plains of Leipzig. He would have been wiser to lead it to the mountains of Thuringia and Hesse, which offered good defensive positions, and so nullify some of the numerical advantage of the royal coalition. In addition, the approach of winter and the need to feed their many troops would have soon compelled the enemies to separate, while the French army, its front and its flanks protected by the extreme difficulty of mounting an attack in a country bristling with natural obstacles, would have had behind it the fertile valleys of the Main, the Rhine and the Necker.
Such a position would at least have given us some time and perhaps tired the allies to the point of desiring a peace; but the confidence which Napoleon had in himself and in the valour of his troops overcame these considerations, and he elected to await his enemies on the plains of Leipzig.
This fatal decision had hardly been taken, when a second letter from the King of Wurtemburg informed the Emperor that the King of Bavaria, having suddenly changed sides had made a pact with the allies, and that the two armies, the Austrian and the Bavarian, in cantonment on the banks of the Inn, had joined into a single unit under the command of General de Wrde and were marching to the Rhine; and finally that, to his regret, he was compelled by force to join his army to theirs. In consequence, the Emperor could expect that soon 100,000 men would surround Mainz, and threaten the frontier of France.
At this unexpected news, Napoleon thought he should return to the project of retiring behind the Saale and the mountains of Thuringia; but it was too late, for already the main forces of the allies were in contact with the French army, and too close for it to be possible to carry out a retreat without being attacked in the course of this difficult operation. So the Emperor decided to stand and fight.... It was a disastrous decision, for the effective strength of the French troops and their allies amounted to no more than 157,000 men, of whom only 29,000 were cavalry, while Prince Schwartzenberg, the enemy generalissimo, disposed of a force of 350,000, of whom 54,000 were cavalry....
This huge army consisted of Russians, Austrians, Prussians, and Swedes, whom the former French Marshal Bernadotte was leading against his fellow countrymen and one-time brothers in arms. The total number of those engaged amounted to 507,000 without counting the troops left in fortresses.
The town of Leipzig is one of the most commercial and richest in Germany. It stands in the middle of a great plain which extends from the Elbe to the Harz mountains, to Thuringia and to Bohemia. Its situation has made it almost always the principal theatre for the wars which have bloodied Germany. A little river named the Elster, which is so small and shallow that one could call it a stream, runs from south to north through water-meadows in a slight valley as far as Leipzig. This water-course divides into a great number of branches which are a real obstacle to the usual operations of war, and require a multiplicity of bridges for communication between the villages which edge the valley.
The Pleisse, another river of the same sort but even smaller than the Elster runs about a league and a half from the latter, which it joins under the walls of Leipzig.
To the north of the town is a small stream called the Partha which winds through a narrow valley and has at every pace fords or little bridges across it.
Leipzig, being at the confluence of these three streams and almost surrounded to the north and west by their multiple branches is the key to the terrain through which they run. The town, which is not very large, was at this period surrounded by an old wall in which were four large gates and three small ones. The road to Lutzen via Lindenau and Markranstadt was the only one by which the French army could communicate freely with its rear.
It is in the area of ground between the Pleisse and the Partha that the heaviest fighting took place. There, a noticeable feature is a small isolated hillock called the Kelmberg, known also as the Swedish redoubt, because in the thirty years war, Gustavus Adolphus built some fortifications at this spot, which dominates the surrounding countryside.
The battle of Leipzig began on the 16th of October 1813 and lasted three days; but the fighting on the 17th was infinitely more savage than that on the 16th and 18th.
Without wishing to go into the details of this memorable encounter, I think I should indicate the principal positions occupied by the French army, which will give a general idea of those of the enemy, since each of our army corps had facing it one and sometimes two of the enemy.
King Murat was in control of our right wing, the extremity of which was bounded by the Pleisse near the villages of Connewitz, Dlitz, and Mark-Kleeberg which were occupied by Prince Poniatowski and his Poles. Next to him and behind the market-town of Wachau was the corps of Marshal Victor. Marshal Augereau occupied Dsen.
These various corps of infantry were flanked and supported by several masses of Marshals Kellermann's and Michaud's cavalry.
The centre, under the direct command of the Emperor, was at Liebert-Wolkwitz. It was made up of the infantry corps of General Lauriston and Marshal Macdonald, having with them the cavalry of Latour-Maubourg and Sbastiani. My regiment which was part of this last general's corps, was positioned facing the hillock of Kelmberg, or the Swedish redoubt.
The left wing, commanded by Marshal Ney, comprised the infantry Corps of Marshal Marmont, and of Generals Souham and Reynier, supported by the cavalry of the Duc de Padoue. They occupied Taucha.
A body of 15,000 men under the command of General Bertrand was sent from Leipzig to guard the crossings of the Elster and the road to Lutzen.
At Probstheyda, behind our centre, was the reserve commanded by Marshal Oudinot and consisting of the Young and the Old Guard and Nansouty's cavalry.
The venerable King of Saxony, who had been unwilling to desert his friend the Emperor of France, remained in the town of Leipzig with his guard and several French regiments who were there to maintain order.
During the night of 15th-16th, Marshal Macdonald's troops were moved to concentrate in Liebert-Wolkwitz, leaving the area of the Kelmberg: but as there was no wish to abandon this position to the enemy before dawn, I was told to keep it under surveillance until first light. This was an operation of some delicacy, since I had to advance with my regiment to the foot of the hillock, while the French army retired for half a league in the opposite direction. I ran the risk of being surrounded and perhaps captured with all my men by the enemy advance-guard, whose scouts would not fail to climb to the top of the hillock as soon as the dawn light allowed them to see what was going on in the vast plains below them, which were occupied by the French army.
The weather was superb and, although it was night, one could see reasonably well by the light of the stars; but as in these circumstances it is much easier to see what is overhead than to see what is below one's feet, I brought my squadrons as close as possible to the hillock so that its shadow would conceal the riders, and after ordering silence and immobility, I awaited events.
The event which fortune had in store was one which could have changed the future of France and the Emperor and made my name for ever celebrated.
Half an hour before first light, three riders, coming from the direction of the enemy, climbed, at walking pace, the hillock of Kelmberg, from where they could not see us, although we could see clearly their silhouettes and hear their conversation. They were speaking in French, the one being Russian and the other two Prussians. The first, who seemed to have some authority over his companions, ordered one of them to go and inform their majesties that there were no Frenchmen at this spot, and they could climb up, for in a few minutes it would be possible to see the whole of the plain; but they should do this right away, in case the French sent sharp-shooters to the area.
The officer to whom these words were addressed observed that the escort was still a long way off. "What does it matter?" was the reply, "There is no one here but us". At these words my troops and I redoubled our attention, and soon we saw on the top of the hillock some twenty enemy officers, of whom one dismounted.
Although on setting up an ambush, I had no expectation of making any great capture, I had, however warned my officers that if we saw anyone on the Swedish redoubt, at a signal from me two squadrons would go round it, one to left and one to right, in order to encircle any enemy who had risked coming so close to our army. I had high hopes, when the over-keenness of one of my troopers ruined my plan. This man having accidently dropped his sabre, immediately took his carbine, and fearing that he would be late when I gave the order to attack, he fired into the middle of the group, killing a Prussian major. .
You may imagine how, in an instant, all the enemy officers, who had no other guard but a few orderlies, seeing themselves on the point of being surrounded, made off at the gallop. We dared not follow them too far for fear of falling ourselves into the hands of the approaching escorts. We did manage to capture two officers, from whom we could get no information, but I learned later from my friend, Baron de Stoch, who was a colonel in the guard of the Grand Duke of Darmstadt, that the Emperor Alexander of Russia and the King of Prussia had been among the group of officers who almost fell into French hands, an event which would have changed the destiny of Europe. However, fate having decided otherwise, there was nothing left for me to do but to withdraw smartly with my regiment to the French lines.
On the 16th of October at eight o'clock in the morning, the allied batteries gave the signal for the attack. A lively cannonade was directed at our lines and the allied army marched towards us from every point. The fighting commenced on our right, where the Poles, driven back by the Prussians, abandoned the village of Mark-Kleeberg.
At our centre the Russians and the Austrians attacked Wachau and Liebert-Wolkwitz six times and were repeatedly repulsed with great losses. The Emperor regretting, no doubt that he had abandoned that morning the Swedish redoubt which the enemy had occupied and from where their gunners rained down grape-shot, ordered its recapture, which was promptly carried out by the 22nd Light Infantry aided by my regiment.
Having obtained this first success, the Emperor, not being able to outflank the enemy wings because their superior numbers allowed them to present too long a front, decided to keep them occupied while he attempted to break through their centre. To this end, he sent Marshal Mortier to Wachau with two divisions of infantry, and Marshal Oudinot with the Young Guard. General Drout with sixty cannons aided the attack, which was successful.
For his part, Marshal Victor overcame and routed the Russian Corps commanded by Prince Eugne of Wurtemberg; but after suffering considerable losses, the Prince was able to rally his Corps at Gossa.
At this moment General Lauriston and Marshal Macdonald debouched from Liebert-Wolkwitz and the enemy was overthrown. The French then took possession of the wood of Grosspossnau. Geberal Maison was wounded in the taking of this important point.
It was in vain that the numerous Austrian cavalry commanded by General Klenau and aided by a host of Cossacks tried to restore the situation, they were defeated by General Sbastian's cavalry. This was a very fierce encounter; my regiment took part; I lost several men and my senior Major was wounded in the chest by a lance, having failed to protect himself by carrying his rolled cape.
Prince Schwartzenberg, seeing his line badly shaken, advanced his reserves to support it, which decided the Emperor to order a massive cavalry charge which involved the two corps of Kellermann and Latour-Maubourg as well as the Dragoons of the Guard. Kellermann overcame a division of Russian Cuirassiers, but taken on the flank by another division he had to fall back to the heights of Wachau after taking several enemy flags.
King Murat then advanced the French infantry and the fighting was renewed. The Russian Corps of the Prince of Wurtemberg was once more overwhelmed and lost twenty-six guns. This treatment resulted in the enemy centre yielding and it was about to give way when the Emperor of Russia who had witnessed the disaster, rapidly advanced the numerous cavalry of his guard which, encountering the squadrons of Latour-Maubourg in the state of confusion which always follows an all-out charge, repelled them in their turn and took back twenty-four of the guns which they had just captured. It was during this charge that General Latour-Maubourg had his leg carried away by a cannon-ball.
So far neither side had secured a marked advantage and Napoleon, to achieve a victory, had just launched against the enemy centre the reserve consisting of the infantry and cavalry of the Old Guard and a body of fresh troops newly arrived from Leipzig, when a regiment of enemy cavalry which had either deliberately or accidently got behind French lines created some alarm amongst the moving troops, who halted and formed a square so as not to be taken by surprise, and before it was possible to find out the cause of this alert, night had everywhere suspended military operations.
There had been other events on our extreme right. For the whole day General Merfeld had tried fruitlessly to secure a passage across the Pleisse, defended by Poniatowski's Corps and his Poles; however, towards the end of the day, he managed to take the village of Dlitz, which compromised our right wing; but the infantry Chasseurs of the Old Guard came from the reserve at the Pas de Charge and chased the Austrians back across the river, taking some hundreds of prisoners, among whom was General Merfeld who found himself for the third time in French hands.
Although the Poles had allowed the capture of Dlitz, the Emperor, to boost their morale, thought he should give the baton of a marshal of France to their leader, Prince Poniatowski, who did not enjoy the honour of bearing it for very long.
On the other side of the river Elster, the Austrian General Giulay had taken the village of Lindenau after seven hours of fierce fighting. The Emperor when told of this serious event, which compromised the way of retreat for the major part of his troops, ordered an attack by General Bertrand, who re-took the position by a vigourous bayonet charge.
On our left, the impatience of Ney nearly led to a major catastrophe. The Marshal who commanded the left wing which had been placed in position by the Emperor, seeing that by ten o'clock in the morning no enemy troops had appeared, sent, on his own authority, one of his army corps, commanded by General Souham, to Wachau, where there seemed to be an active engagement; but while this ill-considered movement was being carried out, the Prussian Marshal Blcher, who had been delayed, arrived with the Silesian army and captured the village of Mckern. Then Ney, deprived of a part of his force, and having at his disposal only Marmont's division, was compelled to withdraw to the walls of Leipzig and do no more than defend the suburb of Halle.
The French lost many men in this engagement, which also had a very disturbing effect on those of our soldiers who were in positions in front of or to one side of Leipzig, for they heard the sound of cannon and small-arms fire coming from behind them. However, at about eight in the evening, the fighting ceased in all parts and the night was peaceful.
This first day led to no decisive victory; but the French had the advantage, since with very much smaller numbers, they had not only held their own against the coalition, but had driven them off some of the ground they had occupied the day before.
The troops on both sides were preparing to renew the fighting on the following morning; but contrary to their expectations, the 17th passed without any hostile movement on the part of either side. The coalition was awaiting the arrival of the Russian Polish army, and the troops which were being brought by the Prince Royal of Sweden, Bernadotte, which would greatly increase their strength.
For his part Napoleon, now regretting his rejection of the peace offers which had been made to him two months previously during the armistice, hoped to have some result from a peace mission which he had sent the previous evening to the allied sovereigns through the Austrian General Comte de Merfeld, who had recently been taken prisoner.
Here could be seen a strange sequence of events. It was the Comte de Merfeld who sixteen years previously had come to ask General Bonaparte, then the commander of the army in Italy, for the armistice of Loben. It was he who had brought back to Vienna the peace treaty concluded between the Austrian government and the Directorate, represented by General Bonaparte. It was he who had carried to the French emperor, on the night following the Battle of Austerlitz, the proposal for an armistice made by the Austrian Emperor; now, as a remarkable turn of fate had brought General Merfeld once more into the Emperor's presence at a moment when he in his turn was in need of an armistice and peace, he had high hopes that this intermediary would return with the result he desired. However things had gone too far for the allied sovereigns to treat with Napoleon, from whom such a plea denoted the weakness of his position. So, although unable to conquer us on the 16th, they hoped to overcome us by a renewed effort with their superior numbers, and relied heavily on the defection of the German units which were still with us, and whose leaders, all members of the secret society, the Tugenbund, took advantage of the lull in hostilities of the 17th to agree on the manner in which they would execute their treacherous designs. The Comte de Merfeld's mission did not even receive a reply.
On the morning of the 18th, the coalition began its attack. The 2ndCavalry Corps, of which my regiment was a part, was placed as it had been on the 16th, between Liebert-Wolkwitz and the Kelmberg. The fighting, which broke out everywhere, was fiercest towards our centre, at the village of Probstheyda, which was attacked simultaneously by a Russian and a Prussian Corps who were driven off with tremendous losses. The Russians vigourously attacked Holzhausen, which Macdonald defended successfully.
About eleven o'clock, a cannonade was heard from behind Leipzig, in the direction of Lindenau, and we learned that at this point our troops had broken through the ring within which the enemy believed they could contain the French army, and that General Bertrand's corps was marching towards Weissenfeld in the direction of the Rhine, without the enemy being able to stop him. The Emperor then ordered to evacuation of the equipment to Lutzen.
Meanwhile, the Leipzig plateau, around Connewitz and Lssnig, was the scene of a massive engagement; the earth shook with the noise of a thousand cannon, and the enemy tried to force a passage across the Pleisse. They were driven back, although the Poles managed to ruin some of the bayonet charges made by our infantry. Then the 1st French Cavalry Corps, seeing the Austrian and Prussian squadrons going to the aid of their allies, emerged from behind the village of Probstheyda and hurled themselves at the enemy, whom they overwhelmed and drove back to their reserves which were led by Prince Constantine of Russia. Defeated again at this spot the allies built up an immense force in order to capture Probstheyda, but this formidable mass had such a hot reception from some divisions of our infantry and the infantry Chasseurs of the Old Guard that they promptly withdrew. We lost there Generals Vial and Rochambeau. The latter had just been made a Marshal of France by the Emperor.
Bernadotte had not yet attacked the French and seemed, it was said, to waver; but at last urged on or even threatened by the Prussian Marshal Blcher, he decided to cross the Partha above the village of Mockau, at the head of his troops and a Russian corps which had been placed under his command. When a brigade of Saxon Hussars and Lancers which was positioned at this point saw the Cossacks who preceded Bernadotte approaching they marched towards them as if to give battle; but then, turning round suddenly and forgetting about their aged King, our ally who was in the midst of Napoleon's troops, the infamous Saxons aimed their muskets and cannons at the French.
This force led by Bernadotte, following the left bank of the Partha, headed for Sellerhausen which was defended by Reynier, whose corps was almost entirely made up of German contingents. Reynier having seen the desertion of the Saxon cavalry, distrusted their infantry, which he had placed next to the cavalry of Durette in order to restrain them; but Marshal Ney, with misplaced confidence, ordered him to deploy the Saxons and send them to assist a French regiment which was defending the village of Paunsdorf. The Saxons had gone only a little distance from the French, when seeing the Prussian ensigns in the fields of Paunsdorf they ran towards them at top speed, led by the shameless General Russel, their commander. Some French officers could not believe such treachery, and thought that the Saxons were going to attack the Prussians; so that General Gressot, Reynier's chief-of-staff rushed towards them to moderate what he thought was an excess of zeal, only to find himself confronted by enemies! This defection of an entire army corps produced a frightening gap in the French centre, and had the additional effect of raising the allied morale. The Wurtemberg cavalry promptly followed the example of the Saxons.
Not only did Bernadotte welcome the perfidious Saxons into his ranks, but he used their artillery to bolster up his own, which the former Marshal France now aimed at Frenchmen.
The Saxons had scarcely entered the enemy ranks when they celebrated their treachery by firing at us a hail of projectiles, many of which were directed to my regiment, for I lost some thirty men, among whom was Captain Bertain, an excellent officer who had his head taken off by a cannon-ball.
So now it was Bernadotte, a man for whom French blood had procured a throne, who was attempting to deliver to us the coup de grace.
Amid this general disloyalty, the King of Wurtemberg presented an honourable exception, for as I have said, he had informed Napoleon that circumstances forced him to renounce his friendship; but even after he had taken this final step, he ordered his troops not to attack the French without giving them ten days warning, and although he was now an enemy of France, he dismissed from his army the general and several officers who had handed over their troops to the Russians at the battle of Leipzig, and withdrew all their decorations from the turncoat regiments.
Probstheyda, however, continued to be the theatre of a most murderous struggle. The Old Guard, deployed behind the village, held itself in readiness to hasten to the aid of its defenders. Bulow's Prussian corps having attempted to push forward, was heavily defeated; but we lost in the action General Delmas, a distinguished soldier and a man of high principles who, having been involved with Napoleon since the creation of the Empire, had spent ten years in retirement, but asked to be returned to active service when he saw his country in danger.
Facing a terrible cannonade, and continual attacks, the French line remained steadfastly in position. Towards our left, Marshal Macdonald and General Sbastiani were holding the ground between Probstheyda and Sttteritz, in spite of numerous attacks by Klenau's Austrians and the Russians of Doctoroff, when they were assailed by a charge of more than 20,000 Cossacks and Baskirs, the efforts of the latter being directed mainly at Sbastiani's cavalry.
With much shouting, these barbarians rapidly surrounded our squadrons, against which they launched thousands of arrows which did very little damage because the Baskirs, being entirely irregulars, do not know how to form up in ranks and they go about in a mob like a flock of sheep, with the result that the riders cannot shoot horizontally without wounding or killing their comrades who are in front of them, but shoot their arrows into the air to describe an arc which will allow them to descend on the enemy. This system does not permit any accurate aim, and nine tenths of the arrows miss their target. Those that do arrive have used up in their ascent the impulse given to them by the bow, and fall only under their own weight, which is very small, so that they do not as a rule inflict any serious injuries. In fact the Baskirs, having no other arms, are undoubtedly the world's least dangerous troops.
However, since they attacked us in swarms, and the more one killed of these wasps, the more seemed to arrive, the huge number of arrows which they discharged into the air of necessity caused a few dangerous wounds. Thus, one of my finest N.C.O.s. by the name of Meslin had his body pierced by an arrow which entered his chest and emerged at his back. The brave fellow, taking two hands, broke the arrow and pulled out the remaining part, but this did not save him, for he died a few moments later. This is the only example which I can remember of death being caused by a Baskir arrow, but I had several men and horses hit, and was myself wounded by this ridiculous weapon.
I had my sabre in my hand, and I was giving orders to an officer, when, on raising my arm to indicate the point to which he was to go, I felt my sabre encounter a strange resistance and was aware of a slight pain in my right thigh, in which was embedded for about an inch, a four foot arrow which in the heat of battle I had not felt. I had it extracted by Dr.Parot and put in one of the boxes in the regimental ambulance, intending to keep it as a memento; but unfortunately it got lost.
You will understand that for such a minor injury I was not going to leave the regiment, particularly at such a critical time... The reinforcements brought by Bernadotte and Blcher were determinedly attacking the village of Schnfeld, not far from where the Partha enters Leipzig. Generals Lagrange and Friederichs who were defending this important point, repelled seven assaults and seven times drove the allies out of houses they had captured. General Friederichs was killed during this action; he was a fine officer who among his other qualities, was the most handsome man in the French army.
Nevertheless, it looked as if the allies might take Schnfeld until Marshal Ney went to the aid of the village, which remained in French hands. Marshal Ney received a blow on his shoulder which forced him to leave the field of battle.
By nightfall the troops of both sides were, in most parts of the line, in the same positions which they had occupied at the beginning of the battle. In the evening my troopers and those of all the divisions of Sbastiani's cavalry tethered their horses to the same pickets which they had used for the three preceding days, and almost all the battalions occupied the same bivouacs. So this battle which our enemies have celebrated as a great success, was in fact indecisive, since being greatly inferior in numbers, having almost all the nations of Europe against us and harbouring a crowd of traitors in our ranks, we had not yielded an inch of ground. The English general, Sir Robert Wilson, who was in Leipzig in the rle of British representative and whose testimony cannot be suspected of partiality, said of this battle:-
"In spite of the defection of the Saxon army in the middle of the battle, in spite of the courage and perseverance of the allied troops, it proved impossible to take from the French any of the villages which they regarded as essential to their position. Night ended the fighting, leaving the French, and in particular the defenders of Probstheyda, in the well-earned position of having inspired in their enemies a generous measure of respect..."
After sunset, when it was beginning to grow dark, I was ordered to put a stop, at the front of my regiment, to the useless exchange of fire which usually goes on after a serious engagement. There is some difficulty in separating men on both sides who have been fighting each other, the more so because, to prevent the enemy from knowing what is going on, and making use of it to fall unexpectedly on our advance-posts, one cannot use drums or trumpets to instruct the infantrymen to cease fire and to form up to rejoin their regiments. A warning is given to platoon commanders, in quiet tones, and they then send sous-officiers to look silently for the small, scattered groups. As the enemy were doing the same, the firing gradually grew less and soon stopped entirely.
To make sure that no sentinel was forgotten and that this little withdrawal to bivouac was carried out in good order, it was my custom to have it supervised by an officer. The one who was on duty on this evening was a Captain Joly, a brave and well-trained officer, but inclined to be obstinate. He had given evidence of this trait some months before the battle when, given the job of distributing some officer's remounts which had been presented, on the Emperor's instructions, to those who had taken part in the Russian campaign, M. Joly, ignoring my advice and that of his friends, had selected for himself a magnificent light grey, which neither I nor my friends would have because of its striking colour, and which I had at first reserved for the trumpeters. So on the evening of the battle of Leipzig, while M. Joly, in carrying out his duty, was riding at a walk behind the lines of infantry, his horse stood out so clearly, in spite of the failing light, that it was picked out by the enemy and both horse and rider were seriously wounded. The captain had a musket ball through his body and died during the night in a house in the suburb of Halle, to where, on the previous evening, I had sent Major Pozac.
Although the latter's wound was not dangerous, he was grieved to think that the French army would probably leave and he would become a prisoner of the enemy, who would deprive him of the sabre of honour which he had been awarded by the First Consul after the battle of Marengo when he was still only a sous-officier; but I calmed his anxieties by taking charge of the precious sabre which was given into the care of one of the regimental surgeons, and handed back to Pozac when he returned to France.
The calm of the night having replaced in the fields of Leipzig the terrible battles which they had just witnessed, the leaders of both sides could examine their positions.
That of the Emperor Napoleon was the least favourable. If one could blame this great man for not retreating behind the Saale eight days before the battle, when he could have still avoided risking the safety of his army, which was threatened by infinitely more numerous forces, there is now even more reason to disapprove of his judgement when, at Leipzig, one sees him completely surrounded on the field of battle by his enemies. I use the word "completely" because, on the 18th, at eleven in the morning, Lichtenstein's Austrian corps seized the village of Kleinzschocher, on the left bank of the Elster, and for a time the route from Leipzig to Weissenfels, the only way of escape for the French, was cut and Napoleon's army entirely encircled.
It is true that this situation did not last for more than half an hour, but would Napoleon not have been wiser to avoid all the consequences which might have arisen from such an event by taking shelter behind the mountains of Thuringia and the river Saale before all the enemy forces could combine to surround him?
We now come to a very critical situation.... The French had held on to their positions for the three days of the battle, but this success had been achieved only at the expense of much blood, for in killed and wounded we had 40,000 casualties. It is true that the enemy had suffered 60,000, a figure greatly to their disadvantage, which was attributable to the persistence with which they attacked our entrenched positions. As, however, they had many more men than we did, having lost 40,000 we were proportionately much more weakened than they were.
In addition to this, the French artillery had fired during the three days 220,000 rounds, of which 95,000 were fired on the 18th, and there were no more than 16,000 rounds left in the reserves, that is to say enough to continue in action for only two hours. This shortage of ammunition which should have been foreseen before we engaged a powerful enemy so far from our frontiers, prevented Napoleon from renewing the battle, which he might possibly have won, and forced him to order a retreat.
This was a movement which it was very difficult to carry out, because of the nature of the terrain which we occupied, which was full of water-meadows and streams and traversed by three rivers, creating many narrow defiles which would have to be negotiated under the eyes and within close range of the enemy, who might easily throw our ranks into disorder during this perilous march.
There was only one means of assuring our retreat, and that was the construction of a large number of pathways and footbridges across the meadows, ditches and small streams, together with larger bridges across the Partha, the Pleisse and principally, over the Elster, which was joined by these various tributaries at the gates and even within the town of Leipzig. Now, nothing could have been easier than the creation of these indispensable means of passage, for the town and suburbs of Leipzig, barely a musket-shot away, offered a ready source of planks and beams, girders, nails and rope etc. The whole army believed that numerous crossing places had been made since their arrival before Leipzig and that these had been increased on the 16th and above all on the 17th, when the whole day had passed without any fighting. Well!... for a number of deplorable reasons and by unbelievable negligence, nothing whatsoever had been done... and among those official documents which we possess relating to this famous battle, one can find nothing, absolutely nothing, which would show that any measures had been taken to facilitate, in case of a retreat, the movement of the many columns which were in action beyond the obstructions formed by the rivers and the streets of Leipzig and its suburbs. None of the officers who escaped from the disaster, nor any of the authors who have written about it have been able to show that any of the senior staff of the army took steps to establish new crossing points or to ensure free use of those which existed. Only General Pelet, who is a great admirer of Napoleon and who, for this reason, is sometimes given to exaggeration, writing fifteen years after the battle, states that M. Odier, the deputy quartermaster of the Imperial Guard, told him several times that he was present when one morning (he does say on what day) the Emperor ordered a general on his staff to look into the construction of bridges and made him specially responsible for the task. General Pelet does not disclose the name of the general to whom the Emperor gave this order, although it would be most important to know it.
M. Fain, Napoleon's secretary, says in his memoirs "The Emperor ordered the construction in the neighbouring marshes of new pathways which would ease the passage of this long defile".
I do not know how much credit history will give to the accuracy of these assertions; but even supposing them to be true, there are those who think that the head of the French army should have done more than give an order to a general staff officer, who perhaps did not have at his disposal sappers or the necessary material, and that he should have given the responsibility for creating new crossing points to several officers, at least one from every regiment in each army corps, for it is plain that no one was doing anything. Here now is the truth of the matter, which is known to very few people.
The Emperor had for head of his general staff, Marshal Prince Berthier, who had never left him since the Italian campaign of 1796. He was capable, precise and loyal but having often suffered the effects of the imperial temper, he had developed such a fear of Napoleon's outbursts that he had decided never to take the initiative on any matter, never to ask any questions, and simply to carry out those orders he received in writing. This system which maintained good relations between the Major-general and his chief, was harmful to the interests of the army; for no matter how great the Emperor's energy and ability, it was impossible for him to see everything and undertake everything; and so if he overlooked something of importance nothing was done.
It seems that this is what happened at Leipzig, where, when almost all the marshals and generals had on several occasions, and particularly on the last two days, pointed out to Berthier how necessary it was to provide adequate ways out in the event of a retreat, his invariable reply had been "The Emperor has not ordered it." No materials were supplied, and so not a plank nor beam had been placed across a rivulet when, during the night of 18th-19th the Emperor ordered a retreat to Weissenfels and the river Saale.
The allies had suffered such heavy losses that they felt it impossible to renew the struggle. They did not dare to attack us afresh, and were on the point of retiring themselves when they noticed the heavy equipment of the army heading for Weissenfels via Lindenau, and realised that Napoleon was preparing to retreat. Whereupon they took steps to place themselves in a position to profit from any opportunities which this movement might present to them.
The most unhappy moment of a retreat, particularly for a unit commander, is that when he has to leave behind those wounded whom he is compelled to abandon to the mercy of the enemy, who frequently does not have any and robs and murders those who are too badly injured to follow their comrades. However, since the worst of all things is to be left lying on the ground, I took advantage of the night to have my men pick up all the wounded from my regiment, whom I put in two adjoining houses, firstly to shield them from the drunken fury of the enemy, who would occupy the suburb, and secondly to allow them to help one another and keep up their spirits. An assistant surgeon, M.Bordenave, offered to remain with them. I accepted his offer, and after the peace I recommended this estimable doctor, whose care saved the lives of many men, for the award of the Legion of Honour.
The troops now began their march away from the battlefield where they had shown so much courage and shed so much blood. The Emperor left his bivouac at eight in the evening and went to the town where he stayed at a hostelry in the horse market,named "The Prussian Arms", and after giving some orders he went to visit the aged King of Saxony, whom he found preparing to follow him.
This King, a devoted friend, expected that to punish his unshakable adherence to the French Emperor, the allied sovereigns would seize his kingdom, but what grieved him more was the thought that his army had been dishonoured by deserting to the enemy. Napoleon was unable to comfort the good old man, and it was with difficulty that he persuaded him to remain in Leipzig, in the heart of his state, and send an envoy to the confederates to ask for terms.
When this emissary had left, the Emperor said adieu to the old King, the Queen and the Princess their daughter, a model of virtue who had followed her father even to face the guns of the enemy. The separation was made more unhappy when it was learned that the allies would make no promises about the fate reserved for the Saxon monarch, who would thus be at their mercy. He ruled over some fine provinces, an invitation to his enemies to be implacable.
About eight in the evening the retreat began, with the corps of Marshals Victor and Augereau, the ambulances, a part of the artillery, the cavalry and the IMperial Guard. While these troops filed through the suburb of Lindenau, Marshals Ney, Marmont and General Reynier guarded the suburbs of Halle and Rosenthal. The Corps of Lauriston, Macdonald and Poniatowski entered the town in succession and took up positions at the barriers which pierced the walls, all was thus arranged for a stubborn resistance by the rear-guard to allow the army to retreat in good order. Nevertheless, Napoleon wished to spare Leipzig the horrors which always result from fighting in the streets, and so he permitted the magistrates to address a request to the allied sovereigns asking them to allow, by an armistice of a few hours, the peaceful evacuation of the town. This proposal was rejected and the allies, hoping that the rear-guard might be thrown into a confusion by which they could profit, did not hesitate to expose to the risk of total destruction one of the finest towns in Germany.
Several French generals then suggested, indignantly, to Napoleon that he could assure the retreat of his army by massing it in the centre of the town and then setting fire to all the suburbs except that of Lindenau, by which our troops could leave while the fire held up the enemy.
In my opinion the allies' refusal to consent to an arrangement which would allow the retreat to be carried on without fighting, gave us the right to employ all possible means of defence, and fire being the most effective in such a situation, we should have used it; but Napoleon could not bring himself to do so, and this excessive magnanimity cost him his throne, for the fighting which I am about to describe resulted in the loss of almost as many men as the three days of battle in which we had just been involved, and worse even than that, it disorganised the army which would otherwise have arrived in France still a potent force. The stiff resistance which for three months the weak remnants put up against the allies is evidence enough of what we might have done if all the French fighting men who had survived the great battle had crossed the Rhine in good order with their weapons. France would probably have repelled the invaders.
That, however is not what happened, for while Napoleon with what I regard as misplaced generosity, refused to burn an enemy town in order to ensure the unopposed retreat of part of his army, the infamous Bernadotte, dissatisfied with the ardour displayed by the allies in destroying his fellow Frenchmen, launched all the troops under his command against the suburb of Taucha, captured it and from there reached the avenues of the town.
Encouraged by this example, Marshal Blcher and his Prussians, the Austrians and the Russians did the same and attacked from all sides the tail-end of the French, who were retreating towards the bridge at Lindenau. Finally, for good measure, a lively fusillade broke out near this bridge, the only way for our troops to cross the Elster. This fusillade came from the battalions of the Saxon guard who had been left in the town with their King, and who, regretting not to have deserted with the other regiments of their army, wanted to show their German patriotism by attacking from behind the French who were passing the chteau where their monarch was in residence.... It was in vain that the venerable prince appeared on the balcony, amidst the firing, crying out "Kill me, you cowards! Kill your King, so that I may not witness your dishonour!" The wretches continued to slaughter the French, while the King, going back to his apartments, took the flag of his Guard and threw it in the fire.
A parting stab in the back was given to our troops by a battalion of men from Baden who, being notorious cowards, had been left in the town during the battle to split logs for the fires of the bakery. These worthless Badeners, sheltered by the walls of the big bakery, fired from its windows on our soldiers, of whom they killed a great many.
The French fought back bravely from house to house and although the whole of the allied force was massed in the town filling the avenues and main streets our troops disputed every foot of ground as they retired towards the big bridge across the Elster at Lindenau.
The Emperor had difficulty in getting out of the town and reaching the outskirts through which the army was marching. He stopped and dismounted at the last of the smaller bridges, known as the mill bridge and it was then that he ordered the big bridge to be mined. He sent orders to Marshals Ney, Macdonald and Poniatowski to hold the town for a further twenty-four hours, or at least until nightfall, to allow the artillery park, the equipment and the rear-guard time to go through the suburb and across the bridges; but the Emperor had scarcely remounted his horse and gone a thousand paces down the road towards Ltzen when suddenly there was a massive explosion.
The big bridge across the Elster had been blown up.... Macdonald, Lauriston, Reynier and Poniatowski, with their troops as well as 200 artillery pieces were still on the streets of Leipzig and all means of retreat were now cut off. It was a total disaster!...
To explain this catastrophe, it was said later that some Prussian and Swedish infantrymen, for whom the Badeners had opened the Halle gate, had gradually worked their way to the region of the bridge where having joined some of the Saxon guard they had occupied some houses from which they started to fire on the French columns. The sapper charged with the responsibility of detonating the mine was deceived by this fire into thinking that the enemy had arrived and that the time had come for him to carry out his mission, and so he put a light to the fuse. Others blamed a colonel of the engineers named Montfort who, at the sight of some enemy infantrymen, had taken it on himself to order the detonation of the explosives. This last version was adopted by the Emperor and M. de Monfort was put on a charge and made a scapegoat for the fatal event, but it later became clear that he had nothing to do with it. However this may be, the army laid the blame once more on the Major-general Prince Berthier. It was justly claimed that he should have put the protection of the bridge in the hands of an entire brigade, whose general should have been made personally responsible for giving the order to blow it up, when he thought the moment had come to do so. Prince Berthier defended himself with his usual response "The Emperor had not ordered it!..."
After the destruction of the bridge, some of the French whose retreat was thus cut off, jumped into the Elster in the hope of swimming across. Several of them succeeded in doing so, Marshal Macdonald being among them; but the greater number, including among others Prince Poniatowski, were drowned, because after crossing the river they were unable to climb the muddy bank, which was lined by enemy soldiers.
Those of our soldiers who were trapped in the town and its suburbs aimed only to sell their lives as dearly as possible. They barricaded themselves behind the houses and fought all day and part of the night, but when their ammunition was exhausted they were forced to retire into their improvised defences where they were nearly all slaughtered! The carnage did not end until two o'clock in the morning.
The number of those massacred in the houses is given as 13,000, while 25,000 were taken prisoner. The enemy collected 250 cannons.
After describing in general the events which followed the battle of Leipzig, I shall now describe some of those which related particularly to my regiment and Sbastiani's cavalry corps to which it belonged. Seeing that we had for three consecutive days repelled the enemy attacks and maintained our positions on the field of battle, the men were greatly surprised and disgusted when, on the evening of the 18th we learned that because of shortage of ammunition we were about to retreat. We hoped that at least (and that appeared to be the Emperor's intention) we would go no further than across the river Saale to the proximity of the fortress of Erfurt, where we could renew our stocks of ammunition and recommence hostilities. So we mounted our horses at eight in the evening on the 18th of October, and abandoned the battlefield on which we had fought for three days and where we left the bodies of so many of our gallant comrades.
We had hardly left our bivouac when we ran into some of the difficulties arising from the failure of the general staff to make any arrangements for the withdrawal of such a large body of troops. At every minute the columns, particularly the artillery and cavalry, were held up by the need to cross wide ditches, bogs, and streams over which it would have been easy to put small bridges. Wheels and horses sank into the mud and the night being very dark there was congestion everywhere; our progress was therefore extremely slow, even when we were in the open country, and often completely arrested in the streets of the suburbs and the town. My regiment which was at the front of the column formed by Excelmans' division, which led this wearisome march, did not reach the bridge at Lindenau until four in the morning on the 19th. When we had crossed over, we were far from foreseeing the appalling catastrophe which would occur in a few hours.
Day broke. The fine, wide road was covered by troops of all arms, which showed that the army would still be of considerable strength on arriving at the Saale. The Emperor passed... but as he galloped along the side of the marching column, he did not hear the cheers which usually greeted his presence.... The army was displeased with the little effort which had been made to secure its retreat since leaving the battlefield. What would the troops have said if they had known of the inadequate arrangements made at the Elster, which they had just crossed, but where so many of their comrades would lose their lives?
It was during a halt at Markranstadt, a little town some three leagues from Leipzig, that we heard the explosion of the mine which destroyed the bridge; but instead of being alarmed, we rejoiced, for we all believed that the fuse would not have been lit until after the passage of all our columns, and in order to prevent that of the enemy.
During the few hours of rest which we had at Markranstadt, without being aware of the catastrophe which had occurred at the river, I was able to review our squadrons in detail and find out what losses we had suffered during the three days of conflict. I was dismayed! For they came to 149 men, of whom 60 were killed, among whom were two captains, three lieutenant and eleven N.C.O.s. A very large fraction of the 700 men with which the regiment had arrived on the battlefield on the morning of October the 16th. Nearly all the wounded had been hit by cannon-balls or grape-shot which, sadly, gave them little hope of recovery. My losses might have been doubled if I had not, during the battle, taken precautions to shield my regiment from cannon fire, as much as possible. This requires some explanation.
There are circumstances where the most humane of generals finds himself in the painful position of having to expose his troops openly to enemy fire; but it often happens that certain commanders deploy their men uselessly in front of enemy batteries, and take no steps to avoid casualties, although sometimes this is very easy, particularly for cavalry, who because of the rapidity of their movements can go swiftly to the point where they are required and take up the desired formation. It is when large masses of cavalry are involved on extensive battlefields that these measures of preservation are most required, and where, however, they are least employed.
At Leipzig, on the 16th of October, Sbastiani, commanding the 2nd Cavalry Corps, having placed his three divisions between the villages of Wachau and Liebert-Wolkwitz, and indicated to each divisional general roughly the position he should occupy, Exelman found himself placed on undulating ground intersected, as a result, by small ridges and hollows. The Corps formed a line of considerable length. The enemy cavalry, being a long way from us, could not take us by surprise. I took advantage of the hollows in the ground where our brigade was positioned to conceal my regiment which though formed up and ready for action, saw the greater part of the day pass without losing a single man, for the cannon-balls went over their heads while neighbouring corps suffered considerable casualties.
I was congratulating myself on having done this when General Exelmans, on the pretext that everyone should be equally exposed to danger, ordered me, in spite of the representations of my brigade commander, to take the regiment a hundred paces forward. I obeyed, but in a short time I had a captain, M. Bertin, killed and some twenty men put out of action. I then had recourse to a different tactic: this was to send some troopers, well spaced out, to subject the enemy gunners to carbine fire. The enemy then advanced some infantrymen to counter this, and the two groups being involved in a fire-fight between the lines, the artillery could not use their guns for fear of hitting their own men. It is true that our gunners were in the same boat, but the cessation of gunfire in a minor corner of the battlefield was to our benefit, since the enemy had many more guns than we did. In addition to this, our infantry and that of the enemy being in action at the village of Liebert-Wolkwitz, the cavalry of both sides had to await the outcome of this savage fighting; it served no useful purpose for them to demolish one another by cannon fire, rather than leave the fighting to the infantrymen, who were for the most part only frightening the birds. My example was followed by all the regimental commanders of the other brigades, and the cannons opposite them too ceased fire, sparing the lives of many men. A greater number would have been spared if General Exelmans had not come and ordered the withdrawal of the men on foot, which was the signal for a hail of cannon-balls hurled at our squadrons. Fortunately the day was almost over.