Now to return to the elder. He arrived at my father's quarters, and what did we see? A fine fellow, very well turned out it is true, but with his shako tipped over one ear, his sabre trailing on the ground, his red face slashed by an immense scar, moustaches six inches long, which, stiffened by wax, curled up into his ears, two big plaits of hair, braided from his temples, which, escaping from his shako, hung down to his chest, and with all this an air...! An air of rakishness which was increased by his speech, which was rattled out in a sort of Franco-Alsatian patois. This last did not surprise my father, as he knew that the 1st Hussars were the former regiment of Bercheny, which in earlier days recruited only Germans, and where, until 1793, all the orders were given in German, which was the language generally used by the officers and men, almost all of whom came from the provinces bordering the Rhine. My father was however exceedingly surprised by the style and manner of my proposed mentor.
I learned later that he had hesitated to put me in the hands of this bravo, but M. Gault having reminded him that Colonel Picart had described him as the best N.C.O.in the squadron, he decided to try it. So off I went with Pertelay, who, taking me by the arm without ceremony, came to my room, showed me how to pack my kit into my valise, and conducted me to a small barracks, situated in a former monastery, and now occupied by a squadron of the 1st Hussars.
My mentor made me saddle and unsaddle the pretty little horse which my father had bought me; then he showed me how to put on my cloak and my arms, giving me a complete demonstration, and having decided that he had explained to me all that was necessary, he thought it time to go for dinner. My father, who wished me to eat with my mentor, had given us extra money to meet the expense.
Pertelay took me to a small inn, which was crammed with Hussars, Grenadiers and soldiers of every sort. We were served with a meal, and on the table was placed an enormous bottle of red wine of the most violent nature. Pertelay poured me a glassful. We clinked glasses. My man emptied his and I raised mine without putting it to my lips, for I had never drunk undiluted wine and I found the smell of this liquid disagreeable. I admitted this to my mentor, who shouted, in a stentorian voice, "Waiter! Bring some lemonade for this boy who never drinks wine." A gale of laughter swept through the room. I was mortified, but I could not bring myself to taste this wine, and as I did not dare to ask for water, I dined without a drink.
A soldier's apprenticeship has always been hard going. It was particularly so at the time of which I write. I had, therefore, some unhappy experiences to suffer. A thing I found unbearable was the requirement to share my bed with another Hussar. The regulations allotted only one bed for two soldiers. N.C.O.s alone were allowed to have a bed each. On the first night which I spent in the barracks, I had already gone to my bed when a tall, ungainly Hussar, who arrived an hour after the others, approached it, and seeing that it was occupied, he unhooked a lantern and stuck it under my nose to examine me more closely. Then he got undressed. As I watched him, I had no idea that he intended to get in beside me; but I was soon disillusioned, when he said to me roughly, "Shove over, conscript!" And got into the bed, taking up three-quarters of it, and began to snore loudly. I was unable to sleep a wink, largely because of the revolting odour arising from a large package which my comrade had placed under the bolster, to raise his head. I could not think what this could be, so to find out, I slid my hand gently toward this object and found it to be a leather apron impregnated with cobbler's wax, which shoemakers use to treat their thread. My amiable bed companion was one of the men employed by the regimental bootmaker. I was so disgusted that I got up, got dressed, and went to the stables where I bedded down on a heap of straw. The next day I told Pertelay of my misadventure, and he reported it to the sub-lieutenant commanding the platoon. He was a well-educated man named Leisteinschneider (in German, a stone-worker) who was later killed in action. He understood how painful it must be for me to have to sleep with a bootmaker, and he took it on himself to arrange for me to have a bed in the N.C.O's room, something which pleased me greatly.
Although the revolution had produced a great relaxation in the general turn-out of troops, the 1st Hussars had kept theirs exactly as it was when they were Bercheny's Hussars; so except for the physical differences imposed by nature, all troopers had to resemble one another in their appearance, and as the regiments of Hussars of that period had not only pig-tails, but long plaited tresses which hung from their temples and turned-up moustaches, it was the rule that everyone belonging to the regiment must have moustache, pig-tail and tresses. Now, as I had none of these things, my mentor took me to the regimental wig-maker where I bought a false pig-tail and tresses, which were attached to my own hair, already fairly long, as I had let it grow since my enlistment. These embellishments embarrassed me at first but I got used to them in a few days, and it pleased me to imagine that they gave me the appearance of a seasoned trooper. It was a different matter when it came to the moustache I had no more of a moustache than a girl, and as a hairless face would have spoiled the ranks of the squadron, Pertelay, as was the custom of Bercheny, took a pot of black wax, and with his thumb he gave me an enormous curling moustache, which covered my upper lip and reached almost to, my eyes. The shakos of the time did not have a vizor, so that, when I was on guard duty, or during an inspection, when one has to remain perfectly still, the Italian sun, shining hotly onto my face, sucked the moisture out of the wax of which my moustache was made, and, as it dried it pulled at my skin in a most disagreeable manner. However, I did not blink. I was a Hussar! A word that had for me an almost magical significance; besides which, having engaged in a military career, I understood very well that my first duty was to obey the regulations.
My father and part of his division were still in Nice, when we heard of the events of the 18th Brumaire, the overthrow of the Directorate and the establishment of the Consulate. My father had too much contempt for the Directorate to regret its downfall, but he feared that, intoxicated by power, General Bonaparte, after re-establishing order in France, would not restrict himself to the modest title of consul, and he predicted to us that in a short time he would aim to become king. My father was mistaken only in the title, four years later Napoleon made himself emperor.
Whatever his misgivings about the future, my father congratulated himself on not having been in Paris on the 18th Brumaire, and I believe that had he been there he might well have opposed the actions of General Bonaparte, but in the army, at the head of a division facing the enemy, he was content to adopt the passive obedience of the soldier. He even rejected proposals, which were made to him by a number of generals and colonels, to march on Paris at the head of their troops. "Who," he said to them, "will defend our frontiers if we abandon them? And what will become of France if, to the war against foreigners, we add the calamity of civil strife?" By these wise observations he calmed down the hot-heads; but he was, nonetheless, very disturbed by the coup which had just taken place: he adored his country and would have greatly preferred that it could have been saved without being submitted to the yoke of a dictator.
I have said that my father's principle reason for making me enlist as a lowly Hussar had been to rid me of the simple notions of a schoolboy, which had not been changed by my short acquaintance with the world of Paris. The result exceeded his expectations, for living amongst swaggering Hussars, and having as a mentor a sort of brigand who laughed at my innocence, I began to howl with the wolves, and for fear that I might be mocked for my timidity, I became a real devil. This, however, was not enough for me to be accepted into a sort of brotherhood, which under the name of the clique, had members in all the squadrons the 1st Hussars.
The clique was made up of all the biggest rogues, but, at the same time, some of the bravest men in the regiment. The members of the clique supported one another against all opposition, particularly in the face of the enemy. They called themselves the Jokers, and recognised one another by a notch cut into the metal of the first button on the right hand row of the pelisse and dolman. The officers were aware of the existence of the clique, but as its worst crimes were limited to the adroit theft of chickens or sheep, or some trick played on the local inhabitants, and as the Jokers were always at the forefront in any action, they turned a blind eye. I was young and feckless, and I longed desperately to belong to this raffish society, which I thought would raise my standing amongst my comrades; but it was in vain that I frequented the salle-d'armes to practice swordsmanship and the use of the pistol and carbine, and that I dug my elbows into anyone who got in my way: allowed my sabre to trail on the ground and tipped my shako over one ear, the members of the clique regarded me as a child and refused to admit me to their society. However, an unforeseen event led to my being accepted unanimously.
The army of Italy was at this time in Liguria and spread out on a front of more than sixty miles in length, the right of which was in the Gulf of Spezzia, beyond Genoa, and the left at Nice and Var, that is to say on the frontier of France. We had, therefore, the sea at our backs, and we faced Piedmont, which was occupied by the Austrian army, from which we were separated by that branch of the Apennines which runs from Var to Gavi: a bad position, in which the army ran the risk of being cut in two, which, in fact, happened some months later.
My father, having been ordered to concentrate his division at Savona, a small town, by the sea, ten leagues towards France from Genoa, set up his headquarters in the bishop's palace. The infantry was spread out among the market towns and villages of the neighbourhood to keep watch on the valleys from which emerged the roads which led to Piedmont. The 1st Hussars, who had come from Nice to Savona, were encamped on a plain known as the Madona. The outposts of the enemy were at Dego, four or five leagues from us, on the forward slopes of the Apennines, whose summits were covered in snow, whereas Savona and its surroundings enjoyed the mildest of climates.
Our encampment would have been delightful if the rations had been more plentiful; but there was at that time no main road from Nice to Genoa; the sea was covered by English warships, so the army had to live on what could be brought by detachments of mules along the Corniche, or by small boat-loads, which could slip unnoticed along the coast. These precarious supplies were scarcely enough to provide, from day to day, sufficient food to support the troops; but, happily, the country produced plenty of wine, which enabled them to bear their privations with more resignation.
One fine day I was walking along the beach with my mentor when we came on a "taverna," where there was a charming garden planted with orange and lemon trees, under which were tables at which sat soldiers of all kinds. He suggested that we went there, and although I had never overcome my distaste for wine, I agreed, simply to please him.
In those days the cavalryman's belt did not have a hook, so that when we went on foot, it was necessary to hold up the scabbard of the sabre with one's left hand, and one could allow the end to trail on the ground. This made a noise on the pavement, and looked rather dashing, so of course I had to adopt this way of doing things. Thus it happened that as we went into this garden, the end of my scabbard came in contact with the foot of an enormous horse-gunner, who was sprawled on his chair with his legs sticking out. The horse artillery had been formed at the beginning of the revolutionary wars from men taken from the companies of Grenadiers, who took advantage of the occasion to get rid of their most troublesome characters. The men of the flying artillery, as it was then called, were known for their dash, but also for their love of quarreling.
The one whose foot the end of my scabbard had touched, shouted to me in a very rude tone of voice, "Hussar, your sabre drags too much!" I was going to walk on without saying any thing, when master Pertelay, nudging me with his elbow, whispered, "Tell him to come and lift it up." So I said to the gunner "Come and lift it up then!" "That will be easy!" he replied. Then, at another whisper from Pertelay, "I'd like to see you do it!" I said. On these words, the gunner, or this Goliath, for he was at least six feet tall, sat up straight with a threatening air... But my mentor pushed himself between him and me. All the gunners who were in the garden came to support their comrade, but a crowd of Hussars gathered beside Pertelay and me. There was a lot of angry shouting with everyone talking at once; I thought there was going to be a general mele. However as the Hussars were in a majority of at least two to one, they took the matter the more calmly, while the gunners realised that if they started something they would get the worst of it, so in the end the giant was made to understand that in brushing his foot with my scabbard, I had in no way insulted him, and that should be the end of the matter.
During the tumult, however, a trumpeter from the artillery, of about twenty years of age, had offered me some insults, and in my indignation I had pushed him so roughly that he had fallen into a muddy ditch. It was agreed that this lad and I should fight a duel with our sabres.
We left the garden, followed by all the assistants, and found ourselves by the edge of the sea, on fine solid sand, ready for battle. Pertelay knew that I was quite a good swordsman; however he gave me some words of advice on how I should attack my adversary, and fastened the hilt of my sabre to my hand with a large handkerchief, which he rolled round my arm.
My father hated duelling. Not only because of his own conclusions about this barbarous custom, but also, I believe, because in his youth, when he was a member of the bodyguard, he had acted as second for a comrade of whom he was very fond, and who was killed in a duel over the most trivial matter. However that may be, when my father took command, he ordered the police to arrest anyone caught engaging in swordplay and bring them before him.
Although the trumpeter and I both knew of this order, we had, nevertheless, taken off our dolmans and taken up our sabres. I had my back to the town of Savona, my adversary was facing it, and we were about to begin our combat when I saw the trumpeter duck to one side, pick up his dolman and make off at top speed.
"Coward!....Runaway!" I shouted, and was about to, pursue him when two iron hands grasped me by the collar. I turned my head and found myself facing some eight to ten police! I understood then why my antagonist had cleared off, followed by all the assistants, including master Pertelay, whom I saw disappearing into the distance, as fast as their legs could carry them, for fear of being arrested and brought before the General.
There I was! Disarmed and a prisoner! I picked up my dolman, and looking very sheepish, followed my captors, to whom I had not given my name, as they led me to the Bishop's palace where my father was installed. He was at that moment with General Suchet, who had come to Savona to confer with him on service matters. They were walking in a gallery which overlooked the courtyard. The police put me up before General Marbot, without any idea that I was his son. The sergeant explained why I had been arrested. Then my father, looking very severe, gave me a lively dressing down, after which admonition, he said to the sergeant, "Take this Hussar to the citadel." I left without saying a word, and without General Suchet, who did not know me, suspecting that the scene he had just witnessed had taken place between a father and his son. It was not until the next day that he learned the truth, and he has often spoken to me since, with laughter, about the episode.
On my arrival at the citadel, an ancient Genoese building situated near the harbour, I was locked into a big room lit by a high window, which faced toward the sea. I recovered slowly from my fright. The reprimand which I had received seemed to me to be deserved; however I was less concerned at having disobeyed the General than I was at having upset my father. I passed the rest of the day sadly enough.
In the evening, an old ex-soldier of the Genoan force brought me a jug of water, a piece of ration bread, and a bale of straw, on which I lay down, without being able to eat. I could not go to sleep; at first because I was too upset, and later because of the arrival of some large rats, which ran about me and soon made off with my piece of bread. I was lying in the dark, a prey to my sad reflections, when, at about ten o'clock, I heard the bolts of my prison being drawn and I saw Spire, my father's old and faithful servant. He told me that after my despatch to the citadel, Capt. Gault, Col. Mnard, and all my father's officers had asked him to pardon me. The General had agreed, and had sent him, Spire, to find me and take the order for my release to the governor of the fort. I was taken before the governor, General Buget, an excellent man, who had lost an arm in battle. He knew me and was very fond of my father. He felt it his duty, after giving me back my sabre, to give me a long lecture, to which I listened patiently, but which made me reflect that I would get a much worse telling-off from my father. I did not have the courage to face this and decided to evade it, if that were possible. At last we were let out of the gates of the citadel. The night was dark, and Spire went in front with a lantern. As we walked through the narrow twisting streets, the good fellow, delighted to be bringing me back, recounted all the comforts which would await me at headquarters. "But," he said, "you must expect a severe ticking-off from your father." This last remark put an end to my doubts, and in order to let my father's anger cool off, I decided it would be better not to appear before him for a few days and that I would return to my bivouac at Madona. I could easily have slipped away without playing any trick on poor Spire; but fearing that he might be able to pursue me by the light of his lantern, I gave it a kick which sent it flying ten paces from him, and ran off while the good man, groping for his lantern, shouted, "Ah...! You little blighter! I shall tell your father!"
After wandering for some time in the deserted streets, I found at last the road to Madona, and made my way to the regimental camp. All the Hussars thought I was in prison. As soon as one of them recognised me by the light of the fires, I was surrounded and questioned. There was much laughter when I described how I had got away from Spire. The members of the clique were so satisfied with my behaviour that they decided unanimously to admit me into their society, which was preparing an expedition to go, that very night, to the gates of Dego and steal a herd of cattle which belonged to the Austrian army. The French Generals and even the corps commanders were obliged to ignore these raids, which, in the absence of regular rations, the soldiers carried out beyond the advance posts in order to obtain food. In each regiment the boldest soldiers had formed marauding bands who were marvellously skilled at finding out where supplies were being assembled for the enemy, and using ruse and audacity to lay hands on them.
A rascally horse-dealer had told the clique that a herd of cattle which he had sold to the Austrians was in a meadow a quarter of a league from Dego, and now sixty Hussars, armed only with their carbines, were on their way to capture it. Avoiding the main road, we went several leagues into the mountain by winding and atrociously rough tracks. We surprised five Croats, who had been left to guard the herd, asleep in a shed. To prevent them from going to waken the garrison at Dego, we tied them up and left them there. We drove away the herd without a shot being fired and returned to the camp, tired out, but delighted to have played such a successful trick on the enemy, and at the same time acquired some food.
This event illustrates the already wretched condition of the army of Italy, and demonstrates to what a state of disorganisation such neglect will bring troops; whose officers are obliged not only to tolerate these sort of expeditions, but to take advantage of the supplies they procure without seeming to know whence they come.
Happy in my military career, I had not even reached the rank of corporal when I was raised immediately to that of sergeant. This is how it came about.
On the left of my father's division was that commanded by General Sras, whose headquarters were at Finale. This division, which occupied the part of Liguria where the mountains are steepest, was composed solely of infantry, the cavalry being unable to operate, except in small detachments, on the few open spaces which at this point separate the shore of the Mediterranean from the mountains of Piedmont. General Sras, having been ordered to push forward with the greater part of his division to reconnoitre the area of Mount Santa-Giacomo, beyond which there were several valleys, wrote to my father requesting the loan of a detachment of fifty Hussars for this expedition; a request which could not be turned down. So my father agreed and named Lt. Leisteinschneider as commander of this detachment, of which my platoon was a part.
We left Madona to make our way to Finale. There was, at that time, only a very bad road along the sea coast, known as the Corniche. The lieutenant badly injured his foot as a result of a fall from his horse, and so the command passed to the next in seniority who was a sergeant named Canon, a handsome young man, capable and well-trained, and full of self-assurance.
General Sras, at the head of his division, advanced next day onto the snow-clad slopes of Mount Santa-Giacomo, where we encamped. He had intended to go forward the next day, with he almost certain expectation of making contact with the enemy; but in how great a number? On this subject the General had absolutely no information, and as his orders from the commander-in-chief were to reconnoitre the Austrian positions at this point of the line, but not to engage in combat if he found the enemy in strength, General Sras reflected that if he advanced his infantry division into the middle of the mountains, where often one could not see enemy troops until one found oneself face to face with them at a bend in a gorge, he might be led, in spite of his wishes, into a major battle against superior forces, and obliged to carry out a dangerous retreat.
He decided therefore to proceed with caution, and to push out, three or four leagues in front of him, an advance party which could probe the country and, most importantly, take some prisoners, from whom he hoped to get some information; for the peasantry either knew nothing or would not talk. As a small body of infantry would be endangered if he advanced them too far, and as, also, men on foot would take too long to return with the information which he so urgently needed, it was to the fifty Hussars that he gave the task of going ahead and exploring the terrain. Then, as the country was very broken, he gave a map to our sergeant, briefed him, in front of the detachment and sent us off, two hours before daylight, repeating that it was essential that we went ahead until we made contact with the enemy outposts, from which he would very much like us to capture a few prisoners.
Sergeant Canon managed his detachment according to the book. He sent out a small advance-guard, put scouts on the flanks and took all the precautions usual in partisan warfare. When we had gone some two leagues from the camp, we came on a large inn. Our sergeant questioned the inn-keeper and was told that, a good hour's march away, was a body of Austrian troops, the size of which he did not know, though he knew that the leading regiment contained some very unpleasant Hussars, who had maltreated a number of the local inhabitants.
Having gathered this information, we set off once more, but hardly had we gone a hundred paces, when Sergeant Canon, writhing on his horse, declared that he had the most dreadful pain and could not go any further. He handed the command to Sergeant Pertelay, who was next in seniority. Pertelay, however pointed out that he was an Alsatian and was unable to read French, and could not, in consequence, understand the map or the written instructions given by the general. He did not wish to accept the command. All the other sergeants, old Bercheny Hussars, refused for the same reason, as did the corporals. In vain, as a matter of duty, I offered to read the general's instructions and explain our route on the map for any of the sergeants who would take over; they all refused anew; then, to my great surprise, these old sweats turned to me and said "Take command yourself. We'll follow you and obey all your orders."
The rest of the party expressed the same wish, and it was clear that if I refused, we would go no further and the honour of the regiment would be blemished; for it was essential that the general's orders were carried out, above all when it was perhaps a matter of avoiding a disaster for his division. So I accepted the command, but not without asking Sergeant Canon if he felt able to continue. At which point he began to complain once more, left us and returned to the inn. I promise you I thought he was really ill, but the men of the detachment, who knew him better, made some very disparaging remarks about him.
I think I can say, without boasting, that nature has endowed me with a good stock of courage. I might even add that there was a time when I enjoyed facing danger. My military record and the thirteen wounds I have received in the wars are, I believe, sufficient proof. So, on taking command of fifty men, placed under my orders in such extraordinary circumstances,—me, a simple Hussar, seventeen years of age—I resolved to prove to my comrades that if I had neither experience nor military talent, I was at least brave; and placing myself resolutely at their head I set off in the direction where I knew we would encounter the enemy.
We had been marching for a long time when our scouts spotted a peasant who was trying to hide. They hastened to capture him and bring him back. I questioned him. He came, it seemed, from four or five leagues away, and claimed that he had not seen any Austrian troops. I was sure he was lying, either from fear or from cunning, because we were very close to the enemy cantonments. I remembered then that I had read in a book about partisan warfare, which my father had given me to study, that to persuade the inhabitants of a country in which one is fighting to talk, it is sometimes necessary to frighten them. So I roughened my voice, and, trying to give my boyish face a ferocious look, I shouted, "What! You rascal! You have been wandering about in a country occupied by a great body of Austrian troops, and you claim you have seen nothing? You are a spy! Come on lads, let's shoot him right away."
I ordered four Hussars to dismount, indicating to them not to harm the fellow, who, finding himself held by the troopers whose carbines had just been loaded in front of him, was overcome by such terror that he swore that he would tell me all he knew. He was a servant in a monastery, who had been given a letter to take to relatives of the Prior, and he had been told that if he ran into the French, he was not to tell them where the Austrians were; but now that he was forced to speak, he told us that a league from us there were several regiments of the enemy billeted in the villages, and that about a hundred of Barco's Hussars were in a hamlet which was only a short distance away. Questioned about the defensive precautions taken by these Hussars, he said that before one reached the houses, they had posted a picket-guard which was in a garden surrounded by hedges, and that when he went through the hamlet, the remainder were preparing to water their horses at a little pond on the far side of the buildings.
Having received this information, I had now to make a plan of action. I wished to avoid passing the picket-guard who, being entrenched behind hedges, could not be attacked by cavalry, while the fire from their carbines would perhaps kill several of my men and give warning of our approach. To do this required that we go round the hamlet, so as to reach the pond, and fall, unexpectedly, on our enemies. But how were we to pass without being seen? I then ordered the peasant to lead us on a detour, and promised to set him free as soon as we reached the other side of the hamlet, which we could see: when he refused to do so, I had him taken by the scruff of the neck by one Hussar while another held a pistol to his ear, which made him change his mind. He guided us very well; some large hedges hid our movements, and we got completely round the village to see, at the edge of a small pond, the Austrian squadron peacefully watering their horses. All the riders were carrying their arms, which is the usual practice for outposts, but those in command had neglected a precaution which is essential in war, that is, to allow only one troop at a time to unbridle their horses and enter the water, while the remainder stay on the bank ready to repel any attack. Confident that there were no French about and relying on the watchfulness of the guard posted at the entry to the village, the enemy commander had thought this precaution unnecessary. This was to be his downfall.
When I was some five hundred paces from the pond, I ordered the peasant to be released, who ran off as fast as his legs could carry him; then, sabre in hand, and having forbidden my comrades to utter any war-cry, I advanced at full gallop on the enemy Hussars, who did not see us until a moment before we arrived at the pond. The pond's banks were too high for the horses to climb out, and there was only one practicable way in, which was the one that served as the village drinking place. It is true that this was a wide area, but there were more than a hundred horsemen crowded together there, all with their bridles in their hands and their carbines slung, so unconcerned that some of them were singing. You may imagine their surprise!
I attacked them immediately with carbine fire, which killed several, wounded many and knocked out a lot of their horses. The confusion was total! Nevertheless, their captain, rallying some men who were nearest to the outlet, tried to force a passage to get out of the water, and opened fire on us, which although not sustained, wounded two of my men; they then engaged us, but Pertelay having killed the captain with a blow from his sabre, the rest crowded back into the pond. To escape from the carbine fire, many tried to reach the other bank; several lost their footing and a good number of men and horses were floundering in the water. Those who reached the other side found that their horses could not clamber up the steep edge and so they abandoned them, and pulling themselves up by the aid of trees growing along the bank, they fled in disorder into the countryside.
The twelve men of the picket-guard came running at the sound of firing. We attacked them with the sabre and they also took to flight. However there remained about thirty men still in the pond, afraid to try to escape because we occupied the only way out. They shouted to us that they were surrendering; I accepted this and as they came to the bank, made them throw down their arms. Most of these men and horses were wounded, but as I wished to have some trophy from our victory, I chose seventeen horses and riders who were fit, and placing them in the middle of the detachment,I abandoned the rest and went off at the gallop, going round the village, as before.
It was just as well that I made a rapid retreat, for as I had foreseen, the fugitives had run to warn the nearby troops who had already been alerted by the sound of gunfire, and within half an hour there were five hundred horsemen on the banks of the little pond and some thousands of infantrymen close behind them. We, however, were two leagues away, our wounded having been able to sustain a full gallop. We stopped for a short time on top of a hill to bandage their wounds, and we laughed to see in the distance several enemy columns following our trail, since we knew that they had no hope of catching us, because in their fear of falling into an ambush they were feeling their way forward very slowly. Being now out of danger, I gave Pertelay two of the best-mounted troopers and sent him off post-haste to inform general Sras of the success of our mission; then marshalling the detachment into good order, with our prisoners in the centre and well guarded, I set off at a slow trot down the road to the inn.
It would be impossible for me to describe the joy of my companions and the praises which they heaped on me during this journey. It could be summed up in these words, which in their minds was the highest commendation, "You are truly worthy to serve in Bercheny's Hussars, the finest regiment in the world."
Meanwhile, what had been happening at Santo-Giacomo during my absence? After several hours of waiting, General Sras, impatient for news, saw some smoke on the horizon; his aide-de-camp put his ear to a drum placed on the ground, a common expedient in wartime, and heard the distant sound of gunfire. General Sras was uneasy, and having no doubt that the cavalry detachment was at grips with the enemy, he took a regiment of infantry with him as far as the inn. When he arrived there, he saw, under the cart-shelter, a Hussar's horse tied up to the rail; it was Sergeant Canon's. The inn-keeper appeared and was questioned. He replied that the sergeant of Hussars had gone no further than the inn, and had been, for several hours, in the dining room. The General went in, and what did he find but Sergeant Canon asleep by the fireside with, in front of him, an enormous ham, two empty bottles and a coffee cup! The wretched sergeant was woken up; he attempted once more to make the excuse of a sudden indisposition, but the accusing remains of the formidable meal which he had just eaten, gave the lie to his claims of illness, so General Sras was very short with him. The General's anger was increasing at the thought that a detachment of fifty cavalrymen handed over to the command of a young soldier had probably been wiped out by the enemy, when Pertelay and the two troopers who were with him arrived at the gallop to announce our victory and the approaching arrival of seventeen prisoners. As General Sras, in spite of this happy outcome, continued to berate Sergeant Canon, Pertelay said to him, in his bluff outspoken way, "Don't scold him, mon General, he's such a coward that if he'd been in charge we wouldn't have succeeded!" A remark which did nothing to improve the awkward position of Sgt. Canon, who was now placed under arrest.
I arrived in the midst of these goings-on. General Sras broke poor Sgt. Canon, and made him take off his chevrons in front of a regiment of infantry and fifty Hussars. Then, coming to me, whose name he did not know, he said, "You have carried out successfully a mission which would normally be given only to an officer. I am sorry that the powers of a divisional commander do not allow me to promote you to sous-lieutenant, only the commander-in-chief can do that, and I shall ask him to, do so, but in the meantime I promote you to sergeant." He thereupon ordered his aide-de-camp to announce this in front of the detachment. In order to carry out this formality, the aide-de-camp had to ask my name, and it was only then that General Sras learned that I was the son of his comrade, General Marbot. I was very pleased about this, because it demonstrated to my father that favouritism had nothing to do with my promotion.
The information which General Sras obtained from the prisoners having decided him to push forward, he ordered his division to come down from the heights of Mont Santa-Giacomo, and to encamp that evening near to the inn. The prisoners were sent to Finale, and as for the horses they belonged by rights to the Hussars. They were all of good quality, but, according to the custom of the time, which was aimed at favouring poorly mounted officers, captured horses were always sold for five louis. This was a fixed price and was paid in cash. As soon as the camp was established the sale began. General Sras, the officers of his staff, the colonels and battalion commanders of the regiments in his division soon took up our seventeen horses, which produced the sum of 85 louis. This was handed over to my detachment, who, not having had any pay for six months, were delighted with this windfall, for which they gave me the credit.
I had some money, so I did not pocket my share from the sale of the horses, but to celebrate my promotion, I bought from the inn-keeper two sheep, an enormous cheese and a load of wine, with which my detachment had a feast. This was one of the happiest days of my life.
General Sras, in his report to General Championet included a most flattering reference to my conduct, and said the same sort of thing to my father; so when, several days later, I brought the detachment back to Savona, my father welcomed me with the greatest show of affection. I was highly delighted; I rejoined the camp where all the regiment was united; my detachment had arrived there before me and had told of what we had done, giving me always the leading part in our success, so I was heartily welcomed by the officers and soldiers and also by my new comrades, the non-commissioned officers, who handed me my sergeant's stripes.
It was on this day that I met the younger Pertelay for the first time, he had come back from Genoa, where he had been stationed for some months. I became friendly with this excellent man, and regretted not having had him as my mentor at the beginning of my career, for he gave me much good advice, which steadied me up and made me break away from the wild men of the clique.
The commander-in-chief, Championet, intended to carry out some operations in the interior of Piedmont, but having very little in the way of cavalry, he ordered my father to send him the 1st Hussars, who could no longer stay at Madon, in any case, because of the shortage of fodder. I parted from my father with much regret and left with the regiment.
We went along the Corniche as far as Albenga. We crossed the Apennines, in spite of the snow, and entered the fertile plains of Piedmont. The commander-in-chief fought a number of actions in the area round Fossano, Novi and Mondovi, some of which were successful and others not.
In one of these actions I had the opportunity of seeing Brigadier-general Macard, a soldier of fortune whom the revolutionary upheavals had carried almost straight from the rank of trumpet-major to that of general! He was a good example of a type of officer created by luck and their personal courage who, although displaying much bravery before the enemy, were nevertheless incapable of occupying effectively a senior position because of their lack of education.
This extraordinary character, a veritable colossus, was well known for one peculiarity. When about to lead his troops in a charge against the enemy, it was his custom to shout "Let's go! I'll put on my animal dress." Then he took off his uniform, his jacket and shirt and retained only his plumed hat, his leather breeches and his big boots! Thus, naked to the waist, he displayed a torso almost as hairy as that of a bear, which gave him a very strange appearance indeed. Once in his animal dress, as he called it, General Macard, sabre in hand, hurled himself at the enemy horsemen, swearing like a pagan; but it so happened that he rarely reached any of them, for at the unexpected and terrible sight of this kind of giant, half naked and covered in hair rushing toward them uttering the most fearsome yells the enemy often fled in all directions, not knowing if they had to deal with a man or some extraordinary wild beast.
General Macord was entirely ignorant, which sometimes amused the more educated officers under his command. One day one of them came to ask permission to go into a neighbouring town to order a pair of boots. "Parbleu!" said the general, "This has come at just the right time; since you are going to the bootmaker, sit down and take the measurements of my boots and order a new pair for me." The officer, much surprised, said that he could not take the measurements as he had no idea how to do this, having never been a boot-maker. "What!" exclaimed the general loudly, "I see you sometimes spend whole days sketching and drawing lines opposite the mountains and when I ask what you are doing, you say you are measuring the mountains. How is it that you can measure objects which are more than a league away, and yet you cannot measure a pair of boots which are under your nose? Come on, take the measurements quickly and no more nonsense." The officer assured him that this was impossible. The general insisted; swore; got angry; and it was only with great difficulty that other officers, attracted by the noise, were able to put an end to this ridiculous scene. The general could never understand how a man who could measure mountains could not measure a pair of men's boots.
You should not think, as a result of this anecdote, that all the general officers in the army of Italy were like the good general Macord. Far from that, they contained in their number many men distinguished by their education and manners; but at this time there were still some senior officers who were completely out of place in the higher ranks of the army. They were being weeded out little by little.
The 1st Hussars took part in all the battles fought at this time in Piedmont, and suffered many losses in encounters with the Austrian heavy cavalry. After some marching and countermarching, and a series of almost daily minor engagements, General Championet, having concentrated the centre and left of his army between Coni and Mondovi, attacked, at the end of December, several divisions of the enemy army.
The encounter took place on a plain dotted with small hills and clumps of trees. The 1st Hussars, attached to General Beaumont's brigade, were positioned on the extreme right of the French army. As the number of officers and men who make up a squadron is laid down in the regulations, our regiment, having suffered casualties in the previous affairs, instead of putting four squadrons into the line could put only three; but having done this, there were some thirty men left over, of which five were sergeants. I was one of this number, as were both the Pertelays. We were formed into two sections and Pertelay the younger was put in command. General Beaumont merely instructed him to scout on the right flank of the army, and act as the situation seemed to require. We then left the regiment and went to explore the countryside.
In the meanwhile, a fierce battle commenced between the two armies, and an hour later, when we were returning to our own lines without having spotted anything on the flank, young Pertelay saw, opposite us, and consequently on the extreme left of the enemy line, a battery of eight guns whose fire was raking the French ranks. Very unwisely, this Austrian battery, in order to have a better field of fire, had advanced onto a small hillock some seven or eight hundred paces in front of the infantry division to which it belonged. The commander of this artillery believed that he was quite safe because the position he occupied dominated the whole French line, and he thought that if any troops set out to attack him, he would see them and would have time to regain the safety of the Austrian lines. He had not considered that a little clump of trees, close to where he was, could conceal a party of French troops, and had thought no more about it. But young Pertelay resolved to lead his men there, and from there to fall upon the Austrian battery.
Pertelay, knowing that on the battlefield no one takes much notice of a single horseman, explained his plan to us, which was for us to go individually, a detour by a sunken road, to arrive one by one behind the wood on the left of the enemy battery, and from there to make a sudden assault on it, without the fear of cannon-balls, because we would be approaching from the side. We would capture the guns and take them to the French lines. The first part of this plan was executed without the Austrian gunners noticing; we reached the back of the little wood, where we re-formed the sections. Pertelay put himself at our head. We went through the wood, and sabre in hand, threw ourselves on the enemy battery at the moment when it was directing a murderous fire on our troops. We sabred some of the gunners, but the rest hid under their ammunition wagons, where our sabres could not reach them. As instructed by Pertelay, we did not kill or wound the men on the limbers, but forced them at sword point to make their horses pull the guns toward the French lines. This order was obeyed in respect of six guns whose riders had remained on horseback, but the riders for the two other guns had dismounted, and although some of the Hussars took the horses by the bridle, they refused to move.
The enemy infantry were running to the aid of their battery; minutes seemed like hours to us; so young Pertelay, satisfied to have captured six guns, ordered us to leave the others and to head, with our booty, at the gallop, for the French lines.
This was a prudent measure, but it proved fatal to our leader, for hardly had we begun our retreat, when the gunners and their officers emerged from their hiding places under the wagons, loaded the two guns which we had not taken with grape-shot and discharged a hail of bullets into our backs.
You can well imagine that thirty horsemen and six artillery pieces, each drawn by six horses and ridden by three transport riders, all proceeding in a state of disorder, presented a target which the grape-shot could hardly miss. We had two sergeants and several Hussars killed or wounded, as well as two of the transport riders. Some of the horses were also put out of action, so that most of the teams were so disorganised that they could not move. Pertelay, keeping perfectly cool, ordered the traces of the dead or injured horses to be cut and Hussars to take the place of the dead transport riders, and we continued quickly on our way. However, the commander of the Austrian battery made use of the few minutes we had taken to do this to direct a second volley of grape-shot at us, which caused further casualties, but we were so resolved not to abandon the six guns which we had captured that we repaired the damage as well as we could, and kept on the move. We were already in touch with the French lines and out of the range of grape-shot, when the enemy artillery officer changed projectiles and fired two cannon-balls at us, one of which shattered the back of poor young Pertelay.
However, our attack on the Austrian battery and its outcome had been seen by the French generals who moved the line forward. The enemy drew back, which allowed the remnants of the 1st Hussars to revisit the area where our unfortunate comrades had fallen. Almost a third of the detachment were killed or wounded. There were five sergeants at the beginning of the action; three had perished; there remained only Pertelay the elder and myself. The poor fellow was wounded but suffered almost more mentally, for he adored his brother, whom we all bitterly regretted. While we were paying him our last respects and picking up the wounded, General Championet arrived with General Suchet, his chief-of-staff. The commander-in-chief had witnessed the actions of the platoon. He gathered us round the six guns which we had just captured, and after praising the courage with which we had rid the French army of a battery which was causing them the most grievous losses, he added that to reward us for having saved the lives of so many of our comrades, and contributed to the day's success, he intended to use the power which a recent decree of the First Consul had given him to award "Armes d'honneur" and that he would award three sabres of honour and one promotion to sous-lieutenant to the detachment, who should decide amongst themselves who the recipients should be. We then regretted even more keenly the loss of young Pertelay, who would have made such a fine officer.
The elder Pertelay, a corporal and a Hussar were awarded the sabres of honour, which, three years later gave the right to the Cross of the Legion of Honour. It remained to be decided which of us would be sous-lieutenant. All my comrades put my name forward, and the commander-in-chief, recalling that General Sras had written to him about my conduct at Santa-Giacomo, designated me sous-lieutenant...! I had been a sergeant for only a month! I have to admit, however, that during the capture of the guns, I had done no more than the rest of my companions; but as I have already said, these good Alsatians did not feel that they had the qualities to take command and become officers. They were unanimous in choosing me, and General Championet, as well as noting the favourable comments of General Sras, was perhaps also glad to be able to please my father.
My father, however, was less than pleased with what he considered to be my over-rapid promotion, and he wrote to me instructing me to refuse it. I would have obeyed; but my father had written in the same strain to General Suchet, the chief-of-staff, and this latter had replied that the commander-in-chief would be very put out to find that one of his divisional generals had taken it upon himself to disapprove of a promotion which he had made. My father then authorised me to accept, and I was gazetted sous-Lieutenant in December 1799.
I was one of the last officers promoted by General Championet, who, not being able to remain in Piedmont in the face of superior forces, was compelled to re-cross the Apennines and lead his army back to Liguria. He was greatly distressed to see his force breaking down, because he was not given enough supplies to support it, and he died two weeks after he had made me an officer. My father, who was now the most senior divisional general, was made provisional commander-in-chief of the army of Italy, whose headquarters were at Nice. He therefore went there and immediately sent back to Provence the few remaining cavalry, as there was no longer any fodder in Liguria. So the 1st Hussars went back to France, but my father kept me behind to become his aide-de-camp.
While we were at Nice, my father received an order from the war ministry to go and take command of the advance guard of the army of the Rhine, where his chief-of-staff Col. Mnard would join him. We were very pleased at this, since want of supplies had reduced the army of Italy to such a state of disorder that it seemed impossible that it could be kept in Liguria. My father was not sorry to be leaving an army which was disintegrating, and was likely to be pushed back across the Var and into France. He prepared to move as soon as General Massna, who had been nominated to replace him, had arrived. He sent M. Gault, his aide-de-camp, to Paris to buy maps and make various preparations for our operations on the Rhine. But fate had decreed otherwise, and my unfortunate father's grave was destined to be in Italy.
When Massna arrived he found no more than the shadow of an army: the soldiers, without pay and almost without clothing and footwear, existing on a quarter of the normal ration, were dying of malnutrition as well as an epidemic of disease, the result of the intolerable privations which they were suffering. The hospitals were full but had no medicines. Some groups of soldiers, and even whole regiments, were daily abandoning their posts and heading for the bridge across the Var, where they forced a passage to get into France and spread themselves over Provence, although saying that they were willing to return if they were given food! The generals were unable to remedy this appalling state of affairs. They became, daily more discouraged, and all were requesting leave or retiring on the grounds of ill-health. Massna had expected that he would be joined in Italy by several of the generals who had helped him to defeat the Russians in Switzerland, among them, Soult, Oudinot and Gazan, but none of them had yet arrived, and it was essential to do something about the serious situation.
Massna, who was born in La Turbie, a village in the little principality of Monaco, was one of the most crafty Italians that ever existed. He did not know my father, but he decided on their first meeting that he was a big-hearted man who loved his country, and, to persuade him to stay, he played on these sensitive areas, his generosity and his patriotism, suggesting to him how much nobler it would be for him to continue to serve in the unhappy army of Italy rather than go to the Rhine. He said that he would take the responsibility for the failure to carry out the orders given to my father by the government if he would agree to stay. My father, beguiled by these speeches and not wishing to leave the new commander in a mess, consented to remain with him. He did not doubt that his chief-of-staff, Col. Mnard, his friend, would also give up the idea of going to the Rhine; but this was not to be. Mnard stuck to the order he had been given, although he was assured that it would be cancelled if he wished. My father felt very badly about this desertion. Mnard hurried off to Paris, where he took the job of chief-of-staff to general Lefebvre.
My father went to Genoa, where he took command of the three divisions which composed the right wing of the army. Despite all the shortages, the winter carnival was quite gay in the town, the Italians being so pleasure-loving! We were lodged in the Centurione Palace, where we spent the end of the winter 1799-1800. My father had left Spire at Nice with the greater part of his baggage. He now took on Col. Sacleux as his chief-of-staff, an admirable man, a good soldier, with a very pleasant personality, if somewhat solemn and serious-minded. He had as his secretary a young man by the name of Colindo, the son of a banker, Signor Trepano of Parma, whom he had picked up after a series of adventures too long to relate here, who became my very good friend.
Early in the spring of 1800, my father was told that General Massna intended to give the command of the right wing to General Soult, who had just arrived, and was much my father's junior, and he was ordered to go back to Savona and head his old division, the third. My father obeyed, though his pride was hurt by this new posting.
A serious situation was developing in Italy. Massna had received some reinforcements; he had established a little order in his army, and the campaign of 1800, which led to the memorable siege of Genoa and the battle of Marengo, was about to begin.
The snows which covered the mountains separating the two armies having melted, the Austrians attacked us, and their first efforts were directed upon my father's division, the third, stationed at the right of the French line, which they wished to separate from the centre and the left by driving them back from Savona to Genoa.
As soon as hostilities commenced, my father and Col. Sacleux sent all the non-combatants to Genoa; Colindo was among them. As for me, I was thoroughly enjoying myself, exhilarated as I was by the sight of marching troops, the noisy movements of artillery and the excitement of a young soldier at the prospect of action. I was far from suspecting that this war would become so terrible and would cost me so dear.
My father's division, fiercely attacked by greatly superior forces, defended for two days positions at Cadibone and Montenotte, but eventually, seeing themselves on the point of being outflanked, they had to retire to Voltri, and from there to Genoa, where they shut themselves in, together with the two other divisions of the right wing.
I had heard all the well-informed generals deploring the circumstances which forced our separation from the centre and the left, but I had at that time so little understanding of the principles of warfare that I took no notice. I understood well enough that we had been defeated, but as I personally had overcome, before Montenotte, an officer of Burco's Hussars, and takingaking the plume from his shako, had fastened it proudly to the head-band of my bridle, it seemed to me that I was like a knight of the middle-ages returning laden with the spoils of the infidel.
My childish vanity was soon crushed by a dreadful event. During the retreat, and at a moment when my father was giving me an order to take, he was hit by a bullet in the left leg, which had been wounded once before, in the army of the Pyrenees. The injury was serious, and my father would have fallen from his horse if he had not leaned on me. I took him out of the battle area. His wound was dressed. I shed tears as I saw his blood flow, but he tried to calm me, saying that a soldier should have more courage. My father was carried to the Centurione Palace in Genoa, where he had lived during the preceding winter. Our three divisions having entered Genoa, the Austrians blockaded it by land, and the English by sea.
I can hardly bring myself to describe the sufferings of the garrison and the population of Genoa during the two months for which this siege lasted. Famine, fighting and an epidemic of typhus did immense damage. The garrison lost ten thousand men out of sixteen thousand, and there were collected from the streets, every day, seven or eight hundred of the bodies of the inhabitants, of every age, sex, and condition, which were taken behind the church of Carignan to an immense pit filled with quick-lime. The number of victims rose to more than thirty thousand.
For you to understand just how badly the lack of food was felt by the inhabitants, I should explain that the ancient rulers of Genoa, in order to control the populace, had from time immemorial exercised a monopoly over grain, flour and bread, which was operated by a vast establishment protected by cannons and guarded by soldiers, so that when the Doge or the Senate wished to prevent or put down a revolt, they closed the state ovens and reduced the people to starvation. Although by this time the constitution of Genoa had been greatly modified and the aristocracy now had very little influence, there was not, however a single private bakery, and the old system of making bread in the public ovens was still in operation. Now, these public bakeries, which normally provided for a population of a hundred and twenty thousand souls, were closed for forty-five days out of the sixty for which the siege lasted. Neither rich nor poor could buy bread. The little in the way of dried vegetables and rice which was in the shops had been bought up at the beginning of the siege at greatly inflated prices. The troops alone were given a small ration of a quarter of a pound of horse flesh and a quarter of a pound of what was called bread. This was a horrible mixture of various flours, bran, starch, chalk, linseed, oatmeal, rancid nuts and other evil substances. General Thibauld in his diary of the siege described as "Turf mixed with oil."
For forty five days neither bread nor meat was on sale to the public. The richest were able (at the start the siege only,) to buy some dried cod, figs and some other dried goods such as sugar. There was never any shortage of wine, oil and salt, but what use are they without solid food? All the dogs and cats in the town were eaten. A rat could fetch a high price! In the end the starvation became so appalling that when the French troops made a sortie, the inhabitants would follow them in a crowd out of the gates, and rich and poor, women, children and the old would start collecting grass, nettles, and leaves, which they would then cook with some salt. The Genoese government mowed the grass which grew on the ramparts, which was then cooked in the public squares and distributed to the wretched invalids, who had not the strength to go and find for themselves and prepare this crude dish. Even the soldiers cooked nettles and all sorts of herbage with their horse flesh. The richest and most distinguished families in the town envied them this meat, disgusting as it was, for the shortage of fodder had made nearly all the horses sick and even the flesh of those dying of disease was distributed.
During the latter part of the siege, the desperation of the people was something to fear. There were cries that, as in 1756 their fathers had massacred an Austrian army, they should now try to get rid of the French army in the same way; and that it was better to die fighting than to starve to death, after watching their wives and children perish. These threats of revolt were made more serious by the fact that if they were carried out, the English by sea and the Austrians by land would have rushed to join their efforts to those of the insurgents, and would have overwhelmed us.
Amid such dangers and calamities of all sorts, Massna remained immovable and calm, and to prevent any attempt at an uprising, he issued a proclamation that French troops had orders to open fire on any gathering of more than four people. Regiments camped in the squares and the principal streets. The avenues were occupied by cannon loaded with grape-shot. It being impossible for them to come together, the Genoese were unable to revolt.
It may seem surprising that Massna was so determined to hold on to a place where he could not feed the inhabitants and could scarcely maintain his own troops; but Genoa was, at that time, of great importance. Our army had been cut in two. The centre and the left wing had retired behind the Var. As long as Massna occupied Genoa, he kept part of the Austrian army occupied in besieging him and prevented them from employing all their forces against Provence.
Massna knew also that the First Consul was assembling at Dijon, Lyon, and Geneva, an army of reserve, with which he proposed to cross the Alps by the St. Bernard pass, to enter Italy and to surprise the Austrians by falling on their rear while they were directing their efforts at taking Genoa. We therefore had the greatest interest in holding the town for as long as possible. These were the orders of the First Consul, and were subsequently justified by events.
To return to the siege. When he heard that my father had been brought to Genoa, Colindo Trepano hurried to his bedside, and it was there that we met once more. He helped me most tenderly to care for my father, for which I am even more beholden to him because, in the midst of these calamities my father had no one about him. All his staff officers had been ordered to go and attend the commander-in-chief; soon rations were refused to our servants, who were forced to go and take up a musket and line up with the combatants to have a right to the miserable ration which was distributed to the soldiers. No exception was made, apart from a young valet, named Oudin, and a young stable-lad, who looked after the horses; but Oudin deserted us as soon as he knew that my father had typhus.
My father fell ill with this dreadful disease, and at a time when he was in the greatest need of care, there was no one with him except me, Colindo and the stable lad Bastide. We did our best to follow the doctor's instructions, we hardly slept, being endlessly busy massaging my father with camphorated oil and changing his bedclothes and linen.
My father could take no nourishment except soup and I had nothing with which to make it but rotten horse-meat. My heart was breaking.
Providence sent us some help. The huge buildings of the public ovens were next to the walls of the palace where we were living. The terraces were almost touching. It was on the immense terraces of the public ovens that the crushing and mixing took place of all sorts of chicken food which was added to the rotten flour to make the garrison's bread. The stable lad Bastide had noticed that when the workmen of the bakery left the terraces, they were invaded by horde of pigeons who had their nests in the various church towers of the town, and were in the habit of coming to pick up the small amounts of grain which had spilled onto the flagstones. Bastide, who was a very clever lad, crossed the narrow space which separated the terraces, and on that of the public ovens he set up snares and other devices with which he captured pigeons which we used to make soup for my father, who found it excellent, compared to that made from horse.
To the horrors of famine and typhus were added those of a merciless and unceasing war, for the French troops fought all day on land against the Austrians, and when nightfall put an end to the Austrian assaults, the English, Turkish, and Neapolitan fleets, which were protected by darkness from the port's cannons and the batteries on the coast, drew close to the town, into which they hurled a great number of bombs which did fearful damage.
The noise of the guns and the cries of the wounded and dying reached my father and greatly disturbed him. He lamented his inability to place himself at the head of the men of his division. This state of mind worsened his condition. He became more gravely ill from day to day, and progressively weaker. Colindo and I did not leave him for a moment. Eventually, one night when I was on my knees by his bedside, sponging his wound, he spoke to me, perfectly lucidly, and placed his hand caressingly on my head, saying, "Poor child, what will happen to him, alone and without support in the horrors of this terrible siege?" Then he mumbled some words, among which I could distinguish the name of my mother, dropped his arms and closed his eyes...
Although very young and without much length of service, I had seen many dead on various battlefields, and above all on the streets of Genoa; but they had fallen in the open, still in their clothes, which gave them a very different appearance to someone who had died in bed. I had never witnessed this last sad spectacle and I believed that my father had fallen asleep. Colindo knew the truth but had not the heart to tell me, so I was not aware of my error until some time later, when M. Lachze arrived and I saw him pull the sheet over my father's face, saying, "This is a dreadful loss for his family and friends". Only then did I understand that my father was dead.
My grief was so heartbroken that it touched even General Massna, a man not easily moved, particularly in the present situation when he had need of such resolution. The critical position in which he found himself drove him to behave toward me in a way which I thought atrocious, although now I would do the same in the same circumstances.
To avoid anything that could lower the morale of the troops, Massna had forbidden any funeral ceremonies, and as he knew that I had been unwilling to desert the mortal remains of my much-loved father, and thought it was my intention to go with him to his graveside, he feared that his troops might be adversely affected by the sight of a young officer, scarcely more than a boy, following, in tears, his father's bier. So he came the next day before dawn to the room where my father lay, and taking me by the hand, he led me under some pretext or other to a distant room, while, on his orders, twelve Grenadiers, accompanied only by one officer and Col. Sacleux, took the body in silence, and placed it in a provisional grave on the rampart facing the sea. It was only after this mournful ceremony was over that General Massna told me of it and explained his motives for this decision. I was overcome by misery. It seemed to me that I had lost my poor father for a second time; that he had been deprived of my last services. My protests were in vain and there was nothing I could do but go and pray by my father's grave. I did not know where it was, but Colindo had followed the burial party, and he led me there. This good young man gave me the most touching evidences of sympathy, and this at a time when everyone thought only of themselves.
Nearly all the officers of my father's staff had been killed or carried off by typhus. Out of the eleven which we were at the start of the campaign, there remained only two; the commandant R*** and me! But R*** was interested only in himself, and instead of offering support to his general's son, he lived alone in the town. M. Lachze abandoned me also. Only the good Col. Sacleux showed any interest in me, but having been given the command of a brigade, he was constantly outside the walls combatting the enemy. I stayed alone in the huge Centurione Palace with Colindo, Bastide, and the ancient concierge.
A week had scarcely passed since my father's death when General Massna, who needed a large number of officers in attendance because some were killed or wounded almost every day, ordered me to come and serve as aide-de-camp, as did R*** and all the officers on the staff of those generals who were dead or unable to mount a horse. I obeyed. I followed the general all day in battle, and when I was not detained at headquarters, I went back to the Palace, and at nightfall, Colindo and I, passing among the dying and the dead bodies of men, women, and children which littered the streets, went to pray at my father's tomb.
The famine in the town continued to worsen. An order went out forbidding any officer from having more than one horse, the rest were to be butchered. There were several of my father's left and I was most unhappy at the thought of these poor beasts being killed. I managed to save their lives by proposing that I should give them to officers of the general staff in exchange for their worn out mounts, which I then sent to the butchery. These horses were later paid for by the state, on production of an order for their delivery. I have kept one of these orders as a curiosity; it bears the signature of General Oudinot, Massna's chief-of-staff.
The cruel loss which I had just suffered, the position in which I found myself, and the sight of the truly horrible scenes in which I was involved every day, taught me more in a short time than I would have learned in a number of happier years. I realised that the starvation and disaster of the siege had made egoists of all those who a few months before had been smothering my father with attention.
I had to find within myself the courage and resource not only for my own needs but to look after Colindo and Bastide. The most pressing requirement was to find something for them to eat, since they were given no food from the army stores. I had, it is true, as an officer, two rations of horse meat and two rations of bread, but all this added together did not amount to more than a pounds weight of very bad food, and we were three! We very rarely caught pigeons now, for their numbers had infinitely diminished.
In my position as aide-de-camp to the commander-in- chief, I was entitled to a place at his table, where once a day was served some bread, some roast horse and some chick peas; but I was so embittered at General Massna having deprived me of the sad consolation of attending my father's burial, that I could not bring myself to sit down at his table, although all my comrades were there and a place was reserved for me. But at last the wish to help my two unfortunate companions decided me to go and eat with the commander-in-chief. From then on Colindo and Bastide had each a quarter of a pound of horse meat and the same amount of bread. As for me, I did not have enough to eat, for the portions served at the general's table were exceedingly small, and I was worked hard. Often I had to lie on the ground to stop myself from fainting.
Providence came once more to our aid. Bastide had been born in the region of Cantal, and he had met, the previous winter, another Auvergnian whom he knew, and who was living in Genoa where he had a small business. Bastide went to visit this friend, and was surprised, on entering the house, to smell the odour which floats around a grocer's shop. Bastide remarked on this and asked his friend if he had some food. His friend admitted that he had, and begged Bastide to keep this a secret, since all food found in private hands was confiscated and taken to the army stores. The shrewd Bastide then offered to arrange the purchase of any surplus provisions by someone who would pay cash and would keep the secret inviolate. He came to tell me of his discovery. My father had left me some thousands of francs, so I bought, and brought back to our dwelling at night, a quantity of dried cod, cheese, figs, sugar, chocolate etc. All of which was extremely expensive, and the Auvergnian had most of my money. However I was happy to pay whatever he asked, for I heard daily at general headquarters suggestions that the siege would continue and the famine get worse. Sadly, this in fact happened. My joy at having procured some food was increased by the thought that I had thereby saved the life of my friend Colindo, who, without it, would have assuredly died of starvation, for he knew no one in the army except me and Col. Sacleux, who was shortly to be struck down by a dreadful misfortune.
Massna, attacked on all sides, seeing his troops worn down by continual battle and famine, forced to hold down a large population, driven to despair by hunger, found himself in a most critical position, and believed that to maintain good order in the army he needed to impose iron discipline. So any officer who did not execute his orders immediately was dismissed, under the power which the law gave at that time to the commander-in-chief.
Several examples of this kind had already been made when, during a sortie which we had pushed forward some six leagues from the town, the brigade commanded by Col. Sacleux was not in position at the time ordered in a valley where it was meant to block the passage of the Austrians, who thus escaped.
The commander-in-chief, furious at seeing his plans come to nothing, dismissed poor Col. Sacleux by publishing his dismissal in an order of the day. Sacleux may well not have understood what was expected of him, but he was a very brave man. Assuredly he would have blown his brains out, had he not been determined to restore his honour. He took up a musket and joined the ranks as a private soldier! He came to see us one day, Colindo and I were sore at heart to see this excellent man dressed as a simple infantryman. We said our good-byes to Sacleux who, after the surrender of the town, was restored to his rank of colonel at the request of Massna himself, who had been impressed by Sacleux's courage. But the following year, when peace had been made in Europe, Sacleux, perhaps wishing to rid himself completely of the stigma with which he had been so unjustly branded, asked to be posted to the war in Santa-Dominica, where he was killed at the moment when he was about to be promoted to brigadier-general! There are men who, in spite of their merits, have a cruel destiny; of which he was an example.
I shall discuss only briefly the conduct of the siege or blockade which we sustained. The fortifications of Genoa consisted at that time of a plain wall, flanked by towers; but what made the place well suited for defence was the fact that it is surrounded at a short distance by mountains, the summits and flanks of which are dotted with forts and strong-points. The Austrians continually attacked these positions. When they took one, we went to retake it, and the next day they came to take it again. If they managed to do so, we went to chase them out once more. There was an endless shuttling back and forth, with varying results, but in the end, we remained in control of the terrain. These encounters were often very fierce. In one of them, General Soult, who was General Massna's right hand man, was climbing up Monte Corona at the head of his men to retake a fort of that name, which we had lost the day before, when his knee was struck by a bullet at a moment when the enemy, who greatly outnumbered his party, were running down from the top of the mountain. It was impossible with the few troops we had at this point to resist the avalanche, and a retreat was called for. The soldiers carried General Soult for some way, on their muskets, but the intolerable pain which he suffered decided them that he should be left at the foot of a tree, where his brother and one of his aides-de-camp stayed with him to protect him from being attacked by the first enemy troops to arrive. Luckily there were among these some officers who had much respect for their illustrious prisoner.
The capture of General Soult having encouraged the Austrians, they pushed us back to the city wall, which they were preparing to attack when a heavy storm darkened the blue sky, which we had had since the beginning of the siege. The rain fell in torrents. The Austrians halted and most of them sought shelter in the blockhouses or under the trees. Then General Massna, one of whose principal gifts was the ability to turn to advantage the unforeseen incidents of warfare, addressed his men, rekindled their spirit, and having reinforced them with some troops from the town, he ordered them to fix bayonets and led them, at the height of the storm, against the erstwhile victorious Austrians who, taken by surprise, retired in disorder. Massna pursued them with such effect that he cut off some three thousand Grenadiers, who laid down their arms.
This was not the first time that we had taken numerous prisoners, for the total of those we had captured since the beginning of the siege amounted to more than eight thousand; but having no food for them, Massna had always sent them back, on the condition that they would not be used against us for a period of six months. Although the officers held religiously to their promise, the wretched soldiers, who went back to the Austrian camp ignorant of the undertaking that their leaders had made on their behalf, were transferred to other regiments and forced to fight against us once more. If they fell again into our hands, something that often happened, they were once more sent back and transferred anew; so that there were very many of these men who, on their own admission, had been captured four or five times. Massna, angered at the lack of good faith on the part of the Austrian generals, decided that this time he would retain both officers and men of the three thousand Grenadiers whom he had captured; and so that the duty of guarding them would not fall on his troops, he had the unfortunate prisoners loaded into floating hulks moored in the middle of the harbour with the guns of the harbour mole aimed at them. He then sent an envoy to General Ott, who commanded the Austrian troops before Genoa, to reproach him for his failure to keep his word, and to warn him that he did not consider himself bound to give the prisoners more than half the ration of the French soldier; but that he would agree to an arrangement which the Austrians might make with the British, whereby vessels might bring, every day, food for the prisoners, and not leave until they had seen it eaten, so that it could not be thought that Massna was using this pretext to bring in food for his own men. The Austrian general who may have hoped that a refusal would compel Massna to send back the three thousand soldiers, whom he probably intended to use again, turned down this philanthropic proposal, and Massna then carried out his threat.
The French ration was composed of a quarter of a pound of disgusting bread and an equal amount of horse flesh; the prisoners were given only half this amount! This was fifteen days before the end of the siege. For fifteen days, these poor devils remained on this regime!. Every two or three days Messna renewed his offer to the enemy general; he never accepted, perhaps out of obstinacy, or perhaps because the English admiral, Lord Kieth, was unwilling to employ his long-boats for fear, it is said, that they would bring typhus back to the fleet. However that may be, the wretched Austrians were left howling with rage and hunger in their floating prison. It was truly appalling! In the end, having eaten their boots and packs, and perhaps some dead bodies, they nearly all died of starvation! There were hardly more than seven or eight hundred left when the place was surrendered to our enemies. The Austrian soldiers, when they entered the town, hurried to the harbour and gave food to their compatriots with so little caution that many of them died as a result.
I have described this horrible episode, firstly as an example of the sort of ghastly event which war brings in its train, but principally to brand with shame the conduct and lack of good faith of the Austrian general, who forced soldiers who had been captured and released on parole, to take up arms against us once more, although he had promised to send them back to Germany.
In the course of the fighting which took place during the siege, I ran into a number of dangers but I shall limit myself to mentioning two of the more serious.
I have already said that the Austrians and the English took it in turns to keep us constantly in action. The first attacked us at dawn, on the landward side, and we fought them all day; at night, Lord Kieth's fleet would begin its bombardment, and try, under cover of darkness, to seize the harbour; which forced the garrison to keep a keen look-out on the seaward side, and prevented it from having any rest or relaxation. Now, one night, when the bombardment was more violent than usual, the commander-in-chief was warned that the light of Bengal flares burning on the beach had disclosed numerous boat loads of English soldiers heading for the harbour breakwater. Massna, his staff, and the squadron of guides which went everywhere with him, immediately mounted their horses. We were about a hundred and fifty to two hundred horsemen when, passing through a little square called Campetto, the general stopped to speak to an officer who was returning from the harbour. Someone shouted "Look out for bombs!" And at that moment, one fell onto the crowded square.
I and several others had pushed our horses under a balcony which overhung the door of an hotel, and it was on this balcony that the bomb fell. It reduced the balcony to rubble, and bounced onto the road, where it exploded with a fearful bang in the middle of the square, which was lit for an instant by its malevolent light, after which there was complete darkness. One expected many casualties. There was the most profound silence, which was broken by the voice of General Massna, asking if anyone was hurt. There was no reply, for by some miracle, not one of the horses or men had been hit by the flying fragments. As for those who, like me, had been under the balcony, we were covered with dust and bits of building material, but nobody was injured.
I have said that the English bombarded us only at night. However, one day, when they were celebrating some occasion or other, their ships, dressed overall, approached the town in broad daylight, and amused themselves by hurling at us a large number of projectiles. Those of our batteries which were in the best position to reply to this fire, were located near the breakwater on a big bastion in the form of a tower, known as the Lanterne. The general ordered me to take a message to the officer in charge of this battery, instructing him to direct all his efforts on an English brig, which had insolently anchored a short distance from the Lanterne. Our gunners fired with such accuracy that one of our large bombs fell on the English brig, piercing it from deck to keel so that it sank almost immediately. This so infuriated the English admiral that he had all his guns trained on the Lanterne, on which they now opened a violent fire. My mission being completed, I should have returned to Massna; but it is rightly said that young soldiers, not recognising danger, confront it more coolly than those with more experience. The spectacle of which I was a witness, I found very interesting. The platform of the Lanterne was floored with flagstones and was the size of a small courtyard. It was equipped with twelve cannons on enormous wooden mountings. Although it may be very difficult for ship at sea to aim its fire with sufficient accuracy to hit such a small target as was the platform of the Lanterne, the English managed to land several bombs there. As these bombs descended, the gunners took shelter behind or underneath the massive timbers of the gun mountings. I did the same; but this shelter was not entirely safe, because the flagstones presented a great resistance to the bombs, which, being unable to bury themselves, rolled unpredictably about the platform in all directions, and the fragments from their explosion could pass under or behind the mountings. It was, therefore, absurd to stay there when, like me, one was not obliged to do so. But I experienced a fearful pleasure, if one can describe it thus, in running here and there with the gunners whenever a bomb fell, and emerging with them as soon as the fragments from its explosion had settled. It was a game which could have cost me dear. One gunner had his legs broken, others were wounded by bomb fragments, lumps of metal which did terrible damage to anything they hit. One of them sliced through the thick timber baulk of a mounting behind which I was sheltering. However, I remained on the platform until Col. Mouton, who later became Marshal the Comte de Lobeau, and who, having served under my father, took an interest in me, while passing, caught sight of me. He came over to the Lanterne and ordered me sharply to come down and return to my post beside General Massna. He added, "You are still very young, but you should realise that, in war, it is stupid to expose yourself to needless danger. Would you be any better off if you had a leg smashed for no good reason?"
I never forgot this lesson, and I have often thought of the difference it would have made to my life, if I had lost a leg at the age of seventeen.
The courage and tenacity with which Massna had defended Genoa would have very important results. Major Franceschi, sent by Massna to contact the First Consul, had managed to slip through the enemy fleet at night, both in going and coming. On arriving back in Genoa he said that he had left Bonaparte descending the St. Bernard at the head of the army of reserve. Field-marshal Mlas was so convinced of the impossibility of bringing an army across the Alps, that while part of his force, under General Ott was blockading us, he had gone with the remainder fifty leagues away, to attack General Suchet on the Var. This gave the First Consul the opportunity to enter Italy without resistance, so that the army of reserve had reached Milan before the Austrians had ceased to regard its existence as imaginary. The First Consul, once in Italy, would have liked to go straight away to the aid of the town's brave garrison, but to do that it was necessary for him to unite all the elements of his force, such as the artillery and military supplies, whose passage across the Alps had proved extremely difficult. This delay gave Marshal Mlas the time to hurry with his main force from Nice in order to oppose Bonaparte, who was then unable to continue his march towards Genoa without defeating the Austrian army.
While Bonaparte and Mlas were engaged in marches and countermarches in preparation for a battle which would decide the destiny of France and Italy, the garrison of Genoa found itself reduced to its last extremity. The typhus epidemic was raging. The hospitals had become ghastly charnel houses; starvation was at its worst. Nearly all the horses had been eaten, and though for a long time the soldiers had had no more than half a pound of rotten food daily, the distribution for the following day was not assured. There was absolutely nothing left when, on the 15th Prairial Massna gathered all his generals and colonels together and announced that he had decided to attempt a breakout with those remaining men who were fit for duty, to try to reach Livorno; but his officers declared unanimously that the troops were no longer in a state to engage in combat, or even a simple march, unless they were given sufficient food to restore their strength, and the stores were completely empty! General Massna then considered that, having carried out the orders of the First Consul and facilitated his entry into Italy, that it was his duty to save the remains of a garrison which had fought so valiantly, and which it was in the country's interest to preserve. He therefore resolved to treat for the evacuation of the place, for he would not allow the word capitulation to be uttered. The English admiral and General Ott had, for more than a month, been making proposals for a parley, which Massna had always turned down; but now, compelled by circumstance, he told them that he would accept. The conference took place in the little chapel which is situated in the middle of the bridge of Conegliano, and which is, as a result, between the sea and the French and Austrian lines. The French, English, and Austrian staffs occupied each end of the bridge. I was present at this most interesting event.
The foreign generals treated Massna with much respect and consideration, and although he demanded favourable conditions, Admiral Kieth said more than once that the defense had been so heroic that they did not wish to refuse them. It was then agreed that the garrison would not be made prisoners, that they could retain their weapons and could go to Nice, and that having reached there they would be free to engage in further hostilities.
Massna, who realised how important it was that the First Consul should not be led into making any false move because of his anxiety to go to the aid of Genoa, asked that the negotiations should permit the safe passage of two officers through the Austrian lines, whom he proposed to send to Bonaparte to inform him of the evacuation of the town by the French. General Ott opposed this because he intended to leave with some twenty-five thousand men of the blockading force to go and join Field-marshal Mlas, and he did not want these French officers to warn General Bonaparte of his movements. But Admiral Kieth overruled this objection. The treaty was about to be signed when, from far away, in the midst of the mountains, came the distant sound of gunfire. Massna held up his pen, saying, "That is the First Consul, who has arrived with his army." The foreign commanders were much taken aback, but after a long pause it was realised that the sound was that of thunder, and Massna appended his signature.
It is to be regretted that the garrison and its commander were deprived of the fame which would have been theirs if they had been able to hold Genoa until the arrival of Bonaparte; and furthermore, Massna would have liked to hold out for a few more days, to delay the departure of General Ott's men to join in the battle, which was inevitable, between the First Consul and Field-marshal Mlas. In the event, General Ott was unable to join the main Austrian army until the day after the battle of Marengo, the result of which might have been very different if the Austrians, whom we had great difficulty in overcoming, had had twenty-five thousand more men with which to oppose us. The Austrians took possession of Genoa on the 16th Prairial(May) after a siege which had lasted two whole months.
Massna, as has been said, considered it so important that the First Consul was informed immediately about the situation that he had demanded a safe conduct for two aides-de-camp, so that if any thing untoward befell one of them, the other could carry his despatch. As it would be useful if an officer going on such a mission spoke Italian, Massna chose a Major Graziani, an Italian who was in the French service, but being a most suspicious man, Massna feared that a foreigner might be corrupted by the Austrians and delay his journey, so he sent me to make sure that he made all possible haste. This precaution was unnecessary as Major Graziani was a man of probity who knew the urgency of his mission.
On the 16th Prairial we departed from Genoa where I left Colindo, whom I expected to collect in a few days time, as we knew that the First Consul's army was not very far away. Major Graziani and I reached it the next day at Milan.
General Bonaparte spoke to me with sympathy about the loss which I had suffered, and promised that he would be a father to me if I behaved myself well, a promise which he kept. He asked us endless questions about the events which had occurred in Genoa, and about the strength and movements of the Austrian forces we had come through to reach Milan; he kept us by him, and had horses provided for us from his stable, since we had travelled on post mules.
We followed the First Consul to Montebello and then to the battlefield of Marengo, where we were employed to carry his orders. I shall not go into any details about this battle, where I ran into no danger; one knows that we were on the brink of defeat, and might have fallen if General Ott's men had arrived in time to take part in the action. The First Consul, who feared that he might see them appear at any moment, was very anxious, and did not relax until our cavalry and the infantry of General Desaix, of whose death he was still unaware, had ensured victory by overwhelming the Grenadiers of General Zach. Seeing that the horse which I was riding was slightly wounded on a leg, he took me by the ear, and said, laughing, "I lend you my horses, and look what happens to them!" Major Graziani having died in 1812, I am the only French officer who was present at the siege of Genoa and the battle of Marengo.
After this memorable affair, I went back to Genoa, which the Austrians had left as a result of our victory at Marengo. There I rejoined Colindo and Major R***. I visited my father's grave, then we embarked on a French brig, which in twenty-four hours carried us to Nice. Some days later, a ship from Leghorn brought Colindo's mother, who had come in search of her son. This fine young man and I had come through some very rough times together, which had strengthened the friendship between us, but our paths were divergent and we had to part, albeit with much regret.
I have said earlier, that about the middle of the siege, Franceschi, carrying despatches from General Massna to the First Consul, had reached France by passing through the enemy fleet at night. He took with him the news of my father's death. My mother had thereupon nominated a council of guardians, who sent to the aged Spire, who was at Nice with the coach and my father's baggage, an order to sell everything and return to Paris, which he then did. There was now nothing to detain me on the banks of the Var, and I was in a hurry to rejoin my dear mother; but this was not so easy; public coaches were, at the time, very scarce; the one that ran from Nice to Lyon went only every second day and was booked up for several weeks by sick or wounded officers, coming, like me, from Genoa.
To overcome this difficulty, Major R***, two colonels, a dozen officers and I decided to form a group to go to Grenoble on foot, crossing the foothills of the Alps by way of Grasse, Sisteron, Digne and Gap. Mules would carry our small amount of baggage, which would allow us to cover eight to ten leagues every day. Bastide was with me and was a great help to me, for I was not accustomed to making such long journeys on foot, and it was very hot. After eight days of very difficult walking, we reached Grenoble, from where we were able to take coaches to Lyon. It was with sorrow that I saw once more the town and the hotel where I had stayed with my father in happier times. I longed for and yet dreaded the reunion with my mother and my brothers. I fancied that they would ask me to account for what I had done with her husband and their father! I was returning alone, and had left him in his grave in a foreign land! I was very unhappy and had need of a friend who would understand and share my grief, while Major R***, happy, after so much privation, to enjoy once more, abundance and good living, was madly jolly, which I found most wounding; so I decided to leave for Paris without him; but he claimed, now that I had no need of him, that it was his duty to deliver me to the arms of my mother, and I was forced to put up with his company as far as Paris, to where we went by mail coach.