The ambassador hurried away without saying a word, and as for the assistant chief-of-staff, seeing that he was caught in the act and knowing the fate which awaited him, he went to his house and blew his brains out with a pistol shot. This tragic event was hushed up by the Austrian government and not many people knew about it; it was announced that the assistant chief-of-staff had died of apoplexy. The French ambassador was said to have paid him two million.
While Napoleon was complaining bitterly about the means by which Colonel Czernicheff obtained information about our armies, General Lauriston, our ambassador in Petersburg, bought not only the most detailed information about the disposition of the Russian forces, but also the copper plates on which were engraved the immense map of the Muscovite empire. In spite of the great difficulties presented by the transport of this heavy mass of metal, the betrayal was so well organised and so lavishly paid for that these plates, stolen from the Russian archives, were taken from St.Petersburg to France without their disappearance being discovered by the police or the Russian customs. When the plates arrived in Paris the minister for war, when all the writing had been changed from Russian characters into French, had this fine map printed, and Napoleon ordered a copy to be sent to all the generals and commanders of light cavalry regiments. It was in this latter rank that I received one, which I contrived, with much difficulty to save during the retreat, for it forms a very big roll. Few people brought theirs back, but I still have mine.
The principal reason which led the Emperor to declare war on Russia was his desire to see the implementation of the treaty of Tilsit, whereby the Emperor Alexander agreed to close all the ports of his country to English traders, an undertaking which had never been properly carried out. Napoleon thought, rightly, that he could ruin the English, a manufacturing and trading nation, by preventing their commerce with the European continent; but the execution of this gigantic project offered so much difficulty, that it was only in France that the restrictions were enforced, and there the use of licences, to which I have referred above, made an enormous breach in the regulations. As for Italy, Germany and the Adriatic provinces, although the continental system was established by imperial decree, it was only implemented in theory, partly because of the extent of the coastline, and partly because of connivance and lack of surveillance by those responsible for the administration of these vast areas. So the Russian Emperor replied to the demands made by France by pointing to the state of affairs which was almost universal in Europe. The true cause, however, of the refusal of Alexander to accede to the demands of Napoleon, was that he feared that he would be assassinated in the same manner as his father, the Emperor Paul, who was accused firstly of having sullied the nation's reputation by allying himself to France and secondly of having destroyed Russian trade by declaring war on Britain. Alexander was aware that he had already given offence by the deference and friendliness which he had shown towards Napoleon at Tilsit and Erfurt, and he was anxious not to arouse more anger by cutting off all trade with England, the sole outlet whereby the Russian nobility could dispose of the products of their vast estates, and acquire a monetary income. The death of the Emperor Paul clearly showed the danger faced by Alexander, if he followed his father's example. An additional cause of fear was the fact that he was surrounded by the same officers who had surrounded his father, amongst whom was his chief-of-staff, Benningsen.
Napoleon did not take sufficiently into consideration these difficulties, when he threatened Alexander with war, unless he fell in with his wishes; although, when he learned of the losses and reverses suffered in Spain and Portugal, he seemed hesitant to engage in a conflict the outcome of which he deemed uncertain.
According to General Bertrand, Napoleon, on St. Helena said repeatedly that his only intention, to begin with, was to frighten Alexander into carrying out the terms of the treaty: "We were" he said, "like two opponents of equal ability, who are well able to fight, but being reluctant to do so, menace each other by threats and sabre-rattling, edging slowly forward, each hoping that his adversary will retreat rather than do battle"; but the Emperor's comparison was not exact, for one of these swordsmen had behind him a bottomless pit, ready to engulf him at the first backward step, so that having to choose between an ignominious death and a combat in which he might be successful he had to choose the latter. This was the situation in which Alexander found himself, a situation made worse by the influence exerted by the Englishman Wilson on General Benningsen and the officers of his staff. The Emperor Napoleon was still hesitant and seemed anxious to consult the sage opinions of Caulincourt, his former ambassador at St. Petersburg and those of a group of French officers who had lived for some time in Russia.
Among the latter was Lieutenant-colonel de Ponthon, who had been among a number of engineer officers who, after the Treaty of Tilsit had been posted, at the request of Alexander, to Russia, where they had spent several years. De Ponthon was a highly competent, but withal a very modest officer, he was attached to the topographic service, and did not think it was his place to offer his advice unasked, on the problems which would face an army at war in the Russian empire; but when he was questioned by the Emperor he felt it was his duty to tell the whole truth to the head of state, even at risk of displeasing him, so he described all the obstacles which would face this enterprise. The principal ones were the apathy and lack of co-operation between the Lithuanian states, subject for many years to Russia; the fanatical resistance to be expected from the people of Moscow; the scarcity of food and forage; the almost uninhabited areas which would have to be crossed; roads impassable for artillery after several hours of rain; but above all he stressed the rigour of the winter and the physical impossibility of conducting a war once the snow had begun to fall, which might be as early as the first days of October. Finally, at risk of giving offence and jeopardising his career, he begged Napoleon, for the sake of France and his own reputation, not to undertake this dangerous expedition, the calamitous outcome of which he now predicted. Having listened quietly to M. de Ponthon, the Emperor dismissed him without making any comment. For some days he appeared withdrawn and contemplative, and the rumour spread that the undertaking was off, but then M. Maret, Duc de Bassano, persuaded him to go back to his original intention, and assured him that Marshal Davout would be happy to move his large army of Germany to the banks of the Nieman, on the frontier of the Russian empire, in order to galvanise Alexander into action.
From this time on, although M. de Ponthon was in constant attendance as a member of the cabinet, the Emperor did not address a word to him during the advance from the Nieman to Moscow, and when, during the retreat, Napoleon was forced to admit to himself that the predictions of this admirable officer had been only too accurate, he avoided catching his eye. Nevertheless, he promoted him to the rank of colonel. .
To return to the preparations which Napoleon was making to force the Russians, by hook or by crook, to comply with his wishes: from the month of April, the French troops stationed in Germany, as well as those of various princes of the Germanic confederation allied to France, were put into motion, and their march towards Poland was delayed only by the difficulty of finding forage for their numerous horses; the grass, and even the corn being scarcely out of the ground at this time in these northern countries. However, the Emperor left Paris on the 9th of May, and accompanied by the Empress, went to Dresden, where, awaiting him, were his father-in-law the Emperor of Austria, and almost all the German princes; attracted there, in some cases by the hope of having their domains extended, and in others by the fear of displeasing the arbiter of their destiny. The only absentee was the King of Prussia, who, not being included in the confederation of the Rhine, was not invited to this reunion and dared not turn up without the permission of Napoleon. He humbly requested this, and when it was obtained he hurried to Dresden to pay court to the all-powerful conqueror of Europe.
The protestations of fidelity and devotion which were lavished on Napoleon misled him into making a most serious error in the organisation of the contingents which were to make up the great army destined for the war against Russia. Instead of weakening the governments of Austria and Prussia, his former enemies, by demanding from them the greater part of their available troops, which, prudence would suggest should be placed in the van, not only to spare French lives, but to allow a watch to be kept on these new and undependable allies, Napoleon required no more than 30,000 men from each of these powers, and placed them on the two wings of his force. The Austrians under Prince Schwartzenberg on the right in Volhynie, and the Prussians, to whom he appointed as commander the French Marshal Macdonald, on the left, near the mouth of the Nieman. The centre was composed of French troops and those members of the German federation whose loyalty had been proved at Jena and Wagram.
There were discerning observers who were dismayed to see the wings of the army made up of foreigners, who, in the event of a reverse, could form two hostile armies in our rear, while the centre was embroiled in the heart of Russia. Not only that, Austria who had an army of 200,000, placed only 30,000 at the disposal of Napoleon, and had 170,000 left with which to attack us in the event of failure, while Prussia, though less powerful, still had 60,000 men in reserve.
One is astonished that the Emperor was so little concerned about what he was leaving behind him; but his confidence was so great that when the King of Prussia requested him to allow his eldest son to join in the campaign as an imperial aide-de-camp, Napoleon turned him down, although the young prince would have been a valuable hostage to ensure the fidelity of his father.
While there was a succession of entertainments at Dresden, Napoleon's troops were wending their way through northern Germany. Already the army of Italy, having crossed the mountains of the Tyrol, was heading for Warsaw. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Corps commanded by Davout, Oudinot and Ney, were passing through Prussia on their march to the Vistula. The states comprising the confederation of the Rhine had supplied their contingents, as had Austria and Prussia; it was noticeable, however that although the Austrian generals were happy to unite their flags with ours, the junior officers and the soldiers were reluctant to attack Russia, while the situation was reversed in the Prussian army, where the generals and Colonels felt humiliated by being compelled to serve under the command of their conqueror, while officers of lower rank and the soldiers, were pleased to have the opportunity of fighting alongside the French, and hoped to show that if they were defeated at Jena, it was not through any lack of courage on their part, but due to poor leadership by their superiors.
Napoleon had not only taken into the "Grande Arme" the troops of Austria and Prussia, but he had lowered the morale of the French forces by intermingling them with foreign contingents, so that the various Corps commanded by his marshals contained bodies of men from every part of Europe, Italians, Poles, Spaniards, Portuguese, Germans and Croatians. This admixture of races with different languages, cultures and interests, worked very poorly, and often hindered the efforts of the French troops. It was one of the principal causes of the reversals which we suffered.
Having left Dresden on the 29th of May, the Emperor made his way towards Poland via Danzig and the old Prussia, through which his troops were passing, whom he reviewed whenever he encountered them.
The army was now organised so that the 23rd Mounted Chasseurs were brigaded with the 24th. This brigade was commanded by General Castex and formed part of the 2nd Army Corps, commanded by Marshal Oudinet. I had known General Castex for a long time, an excellent officer, who treated me very well throughout the campaign. Marshal Oudinet had seen me at the siege of Genoa when I was with my father and also in Austria when I was aide-de-camp to Marshal Lannes, and was well disposed towards me.
On the 20th June, 2nd Corps was given the order to stop at Insterberg in order to be reviewed by the Emperor. These military ceremonies were awaited with impatience by those people who hoped to benefit from the awards distributed on the occasion by Napoleon. I was among this number. I felt sure that I would be promoted to the command of the regiment of which I was the acting commander, for apart from the promises given me by the Emperor, General Castex and Marshal Oudinothad had told me that they intended to propose me officially, and that Colonel Nougarde was to be posted, as general, to command of one of the huge remount depots, which would have to be set up in the rear of the army; but the bad luck which had, a few months earlier delayed my promotion to major , also held up my promotion to colonel.
At these reviews, the commanders of regiments were subjected to a rigourous cross-examination by the Emperor, particularly on the eve of a campaign; for apart from the usual questions about their strength in men and horses, their arms etc., he would suddenly ask a number which were unforeseen and not always easy to answer. For example: "How many men from such and such a department have you received in the last two years? How many of your carbines come from Tulle and how many from Charleville? How many of your horses are from Normandy, from Brittany, from Germany? What is the average age of your men, your officers, your horses? How many men in this company have long-service chevrons? etc...etc."
These questions, which were always posed in an abrupt and demanding manner, and accompanied by a piercing look, disconcerted many colonels; but woe to him who hesitated to reply, he went into Napoleon's bad books. I was so well briefed that I was able to reply to all his questions, and, after complementing me on the fine turnout of the regiment, it looked as if the Emperor was going to promote me to colonel and M. de La Nougarde to general, when the latter, who with his limbs wrapped in flannel, had been hoisted onto horseback to follow from afar the movements of his regiment, which I commanded, hearing himself called for, came to Napoleon, and unwisely angered him by making a request on behalf of an officer, a member of his family, who was wholly undeserving. This roused a storm of which I suffered the consequences. The Emperor flew into a rage and ordered the Gendarmerie to clear the officer in question out of the army, and leaving M. de La Nougarde in dismay, he went off at the gallop. So M. de La Nougarde was not made a general.
Marshal Oudinot followed the Emperor to find out what was to happen to the 23rd, and was told "Major Marbot will continue to command them." Before reaching the rank of colonel I was destined to suffer yet another serious wound.
In fairness to M. de La Nougarde, I have to say that he expressed the liveliest remorse at having been the involuntary cause of the delay in my advancement. I was sorry for the difficult position in which this worthy man found himself, for he felt that he had forfeited the Emperor's confidence, and owing to his disability he had little hope of restoring himself by his conduct in the battles which were about to take place.
I was comforted by the fact that the Emperor, on the day of the review, had awarded all the promotions and the decorations which I had requested for the officers and other ranks of the 23rd, and as the gratitude for these favours is always directed to the commanding officer who has obtained them, the influence which I was beginning to have in the regiment was greatly increased and went some way to calm my regrets at not having been awarded substantive rank for the position which I occupied.
At about this time, I received a letter from Marshal Massna and another from his wife, the first recommending a M. Renique, and the second her son, Prosper. I was touched by this double approach and I responded by accepting the two captains into my regiment. However, Madame Massna did not carry out her intention, and Prosper Massna did not go to Russia. In any case he would not have been able to stand the harsh climate.
The army was soon to reach the frontier of the Russian empire, and see once more the river Nieman, where we had stopped in 1807. The Emperor positioned his troops on the left bank of this river as follows: on the extreme right was the Austrian Corps of Prince Schwartzenberg, on the border of Galicia near Drogitchin. On Schwartzenberg's left was King Jrme with two considerable army corps, between Bialystok and Grodno. Next to them was Prince Eugne de Beauharnais, with 80,000 men, at Prenn. The Emperor was in the centre, facing Kovno, with 220,000 men commanded by Murat, Oudinot, Ney, Lefebvre and Bessires. The Guard formed part of this immense body of troops. Finally, at Tilsit, Marshal Macdonald with 35,000 Prussians formed the left wing. Across the Nieman was the Russian army of about 400,000 men, commanded by the Emperor Alexander, or rather by Benningsen, his chief-of-staff. This force was divided into three parts, commanded by Generals Bagration, Barclay de Tolly and Wittgenstein.
Four historians have written about the campaign of 1812. The first of these was Labaume, a topographer, that is to say, belonging to a corps which although part of the armed forces never engaged in combat, and followed the army only to make maps. Labaume had never commanded troops and knew nothing of the practical side of war, so his judgements are almost always ill-founded and do an injustice to the French army. However, as the work apppeared shortly after the peace of 1814 and the re-establishment of Louis XVIII, partisan spirit and the desire for information about the terrible events of the Russian campaign gave it so much credence that no one tried to refute it, and the public came to accept its contents as the veritable truth.
The second book to be published was written by Colonel Boutourlin, an aide-de-camp to the Emperor Alexander. This, although expressing the Russian point of view, contained some worthwhile observations, and if there are some inaccuracies, it is because he did not have access to certain documents, for he is impartial and has done all he could to discover the truth. The work is generally esteemed as that of an honest man.
Labaume's book had already been forgotten when in 1825, following Napoleon's death, General de Sgur published a third story of the Russian campaign. The contents of this book distressed more than one survivor of the campaign, and even the Russians stigmatised it as a war novel. In spite of this, M. de Sgur enjoyed a great success, partly because of the purity and elegance of his style and partly because of the welcome the book was given by the court and the ultra-royalist party. The former officers of the imperial army, finding themselves under attack, appointed General Gourgaud to reply. He did so effectively, but with so much acerbity that it gave rise to a duel between him and M. de Sgur, in which M. de Sgur was wounded. One has to agree that if the latter was less than charitable towards Napoleon and his army, General Gourgaud accorded the Emperor too much praise, and refused to recognise any of his faults.
I have no intention of writing another history of the campaign of 1812, but I think I should relate the principal events, since they form an essential part of my life and times and several of them have a bearing on what happened to me; but in this brief resum I shall try to avoid the extremes embraced by Sgur and Gourgaud. I shall neither denigrate nor flatter, I shall be truthful.
At a time when the two powerful European empires were about to come to blows, England, a natural ally of Russia, had a duty to make every effort to help her to repel the invasion projected by Napoleon. By disbursing money to the Turkish ministers, the English cabinet was able to arrange a peace between the Sultan and Russia, which allowed the latter to recall the army which was on the frontier of Turkey, an army which played a highly important rle in the war. The English had also contrived a peace between the Emperor Alexander and Sweden, an ally of France, on whose goodwill Napoleon counted, the more so because Bernadotte had just been nominated as the heir apparent, and governed the country for the King, his adoptive father.
I have already explained how, through a bizarre sequence of events, Bernadotte was raised to the rank of heir presumptive to the crown of Sweden. The new Swedish prince, after announcing that he would always remain French at heart, allowed himself to be seduced or intimidated by the English, who could have easily overthrown him. He sacrificed the true interests of his adoptive country by submitting to the domination of England and allying himself with Russia in an interview with the Emperor Alexander. This meeting took place in Abo, a little town in Finland. The Russians had recently seized this province and they promised to compensate Sweden by the gift of Norway, which they intended to take from Denmark, which was a faithful ally of France. So Bernadotte, far from relying on our army to restore to him his provinces, accepted these Russian encroachments by ranging himself with her allies.
If Bernadotte had been willing to support us, the geographical position of Sweden could have been of great assistance to our common cause. The new prince did not, however, openly state his position, as he wanted to see who was going to be the victor, and he did not declare himself until the following year. Deprived of the aid of Turkey and Sweden, on whom he had relied to keep the Russian army occupied, Napoleon's only possible allies in the north were the Poles, but these turbulent people, whose forefathers had been unable to agree when they were an independent state, offered neither moral nor physical support.
In fact, Lithuania and the other provinces which formed more than a third of the former Poland, having been in Russian hands for almost forty years, had mostly forgotten their ancient constitution and had for a long time thought of themselves as Russian. The nobility sent their sons to join the army of the Czar, to whom they were too much attached by long custom to permit any hope that they would join the French. The same considerations applied to other Poles who in various divisions of their country had found themselves under the rule of Austria or Prussia. They were willing to march against Russia, but it was under the flags and under the command of their new sovereigns. They had neither love nor enthusiasm for the Emperor Napoleon, and feared to see their country devastated by war. The grand duchy of Warsaw, ceded in 1807 to the King of Saxony under the Treaty of Tilsit, was the only province of the ancient Poland which retained a spark of national spirit and was somewhat attached to France, but what was the use of this little state to the Grande Arme of Napoleon?
Napoleon, however, full of confidence in his army and in his own ability, decided to cross the Nieman, and so on the 23rd of June, accompanied by General Haxo and dressed in the uniform of a Polish soldier of his guard, he rode along its bank, and that same evening at ten o'clock, set in motion the crossing of the river by the pontoon bridges, the most important of which had been laid across the river opposite the little Russian town of Kovno, which our troops occupied without encountering any resistance.
At sunrise on the 24th we witnessed a most impressive spectacle. On the highest part of the left bank were the Emperor's tents. Around them, on the slopes of the hills and in the valleys, glittered the arms of a great concourse of men and horses. This mass, consisting of 250,000 soldiers split into three huge columns, streamed in perfect order towards the three bridges which had been thrown across the river, over which the different corps crossed to the right bank in a prearranged manner. On this same day the Nieman was crossed by our troops at other points, near Grodno, Pilony and Tilsit. I have seen a situation report, covered by notes written in Napoleon's hand, which gives the official strength of the force which crossed the Nieman as 325,000 men, of whom 155,400 were French and 170,000 allies, accompanied by 940 guns.
The regiment which I commanded formed part of 2nd Corps, commanded by Marshal Oudinot, which having crossed the bridge at Kovno headed immediately for Ianovo. The heat was overpowering. This, close to nightfall, led to a tremendous storm, and torrential rain, which drenched the roads and the countryside for more than fifty leagues around. Happily the army did not see this as a bad omen, as the soldiers considered violent thunder-storms were something to be expected in summer. The Russians too, every bit as superstitious as some of the French, had an unpropitious omen, for during the night of 23rd-24th of June the Emperor Alexander escaped with his life when, at a ball in Wilna, the floor of a room collapsed under the chair on which he was sitting, at the very hour when the first French boat, carrying a detachment of Napoleon's troops, reached the right bank of the Nieman and Russian soil. Be that as it may, the storm had made the air much cooler and the horses in bivouac suffered from this and also from eating wet grass and lying on muddy ground. So that the army lost several thousand from acute colic.
Beyond Kovnow there runs a little river called the Vilia, the bridge over which had been cut by the Russians. The storm had so swollen this tributary of the Nieman that Oudinot's scouts were held up. The Emperor arrived at the same moment as I did at the head of my regiment. He ordered the Polish lancers to see if the river was fordable, and in this process, one man was drowned; I took his name, it was Tzcinski. I mention this because the losses suffered by the Polish lancers in the crossing of the Vilia have been grossly exaggerated.
The Russians, however, retreated without waiting for the French army, which shortly occupied Wilna, the capital of Lithuania. It was near here that there took place a cavalry encounter in which Octave de Sgur, who had been with me on Massna's staff, was captured by the Russians while leading a squadron of the 8th Hussars which he commanded, he was the elder brother of General the Comte de Sgur. On the same day that the Emperor entered Wilna, Marshal Oudinot's troops came up against Wittgenstein's Russians at Wilkomir, where the first serious engagement of the campaign took place. I had not previously served under Oudinot, and this dbut confirmed the high opinion I had of his courage, without convincing me of his intelligence.
One of the greatest faults of the French at war, is to go, without reason, from the most meticulous caution to limitless confidence. Now, since the Russians had allowed us to cross the Nieman, invade Lithuania and occupy Wilna without opposition, it had become the done thing, amongst certain officers to say that the enemy would always retreat and would never stand and fight. Oudinot's staff and the marshal himself frequently stated this, and treated as fairy tales the information given by the peasants that there was a large body of Russian troops positioned in front of the little town of Wilkomir. This incredulity nearly resulted in disaster, as you will see.
The light cavalry, being the eyes of the army, while on the march, is always in front and on the flanks. My regiment then was less than a league ahead of the infantry, when, having gone a little way beyond Wilkomir without seeing any sign of the enemy, we were confronted by a forest of huge pine trees, through which the mounted men could move with ease but whose branches obscured the distant view. Fearing an ambush, I sent a single squadron, commanded by a very capable captain, to investigate. In about 15 minutes he came back and reported that he had seen an enemy army. I went to the edge of the forest from where I could see, at about a cannon shot from Wilkomir, behind a stream, a hill on which drawn up in battle order were 25 to 30 thousand Russian infantry, with cavalry and artillery.
You may be surprised that these troops did not have in front of them any outposts, pickets or scouts, but that is how the Russians operate when they are determined to defend a strong position. They allow the enemy to approach without any warning of the resistance they are about to meet, and it is only when the main body of their opponents comes within range that they open a ferocious fire with musketry and cannon, which can shatter the columns of their adversaries. It is a method which has often produced good results for the Russians; so General Wittgenstein had prepared this welcome for us.
The situation seemed to me to be so serious that to keep my regiment out of sight, I ordered them to go back into the forest while I myself hurried to warn Marshal Oudinot of the danger which lay ahead.
I found him in some open country, where having dismounted and halted his troops, he was peacefully eating his lunch in the midst of his staff. I expected that my report would shake him out of this false security, but he treated it with an air of disbelief, and clapping me on the shoulder he called out "Let's go! Marbot here has discovered thirty thousand men for us to thump." General Lorencez, the marshal's son-in-law and his chief-of-staff was the only one to take me seriously; he had once been aide-de-camp to Augereau and he had known me for a long time. He came to my defence saying that when the commander of a unit says "I have seen" he should be believed, and that to take no notice of information brought by an officer of the light cavalry was to court disaster. These observations made by his chief-of-staff caused the marshal to think, and he had started to question me about the enemy presence, which he still seemed to doubt, when a staff-captain by the name of Duplessis arrived, all out of breath, and announced that he had searched the whole area and had even been into the forest, and had seen not a single Russian. At this the marshal and his staff began laughing at my fears, which greatly upset me. Nevertheless I kept my mouth shut, certain that before very long the truth would become apparent.
Luncheon being over, the march got under way once more and I returned to my regiment, which formed the advance-guard. I led them through the trees as I had done previously, for I could see what was going to happen the moment we emerged opposite the enemy positions. In spite of what I had told him, the marshal decided to go down a wide, dead straight road which ran through the forest; but he had scarcely reached the edge of the trees when the enemy, seeing the large group formed by his staff, opened a running fire from their cannons which, placed opposite the road, could fire directly along it, throwing into disorder the gilded squadron, recently so full of themselves. Fortunately no one was hit by this fire, but the marshal's horse was killed, as was that of M. Duplessis and a number of others. I had been amply avenged, and I must confess, to my shame, that I had difficulty in hiding my satisfaction at seeing those who had scoffed at my report and treated as fantasy what I had said about the enemy presence,taking to their heels under a hail of shot and scrambling over ditches as best they could to seek shelter behind the great pine trees! The worthy General Lorencez, whom I had warned to stay in the forest, laughed heartily at this scene. In fairness to Oudinot, I must say that once remounted, he came and apologised for for his behaviour at luncheon, and asked me to brief him on the Russian positions, and point out a route through the forest which the infantry might take without being too much exposed to the enemy's guns.
Several officers of the 23rd who, like me, had been through the woodland in the morning, were detailed to guide the infantry divisions. Nevertheless, on their emerging from the trees they were subjected to a terrible cannonade, which could have been avoided if, having been warned of the Russian presence, there had been an attempt to turn one of their flanks, instead of making a frontal approach. As it was, we were now committed, once we emerged from the wood, to attacking the most heavily defended point and taking the bull by the horns.
However, our gallant soldiers engaged the enemy with such determination that they drove them from all their positions, and after two hours of fighting they began to retreat. This operation was not without danger, for, to carry it out, they had to go through the town and cross the bridge over a very steep-sided stream. This manoeuvre, always difficult to execute under fire, started off in an orderly fashion, but our light artillery, having taken up a position on a height which overlooked the town, by means of its gunfire soon produced disorder among the enemy columns, which broke ranks and rushed to the bridge. Once they had crossed the stream, instead of regrouping they fled helter-skelter over the open ground of the opposite bank, where the retreat soon became a rout! Only one regiment, that of Toula, stood its ground on the town side of the bridge. Marshal Oudinot very much wanted to force a passage across the bridge to complete his victory by pursuing the fugitives on the other side of the stream; but our infantry had hardly reached the suburbs, from where it would take them at least 15 minutes to reach the bridge,and time was precious.
My regiment, which had made a successful charge at the entrance to the town, had re-formed on the promenade, a short distance from the stream. The marshal sent word to me to bring them at the gallop and we had hardly arrived before he ordered me to charge the enemy battalions which were covering the bridge, then to cross the bridge and pursue the fugitives on the open ground of the opposite side. Experienced soldiers know how difficult it is for cavalry to overcome infantry, who are determined to defend themselves in the streets of a town. I was well aware of the dangers of the task which I had been given, but it had to be done, and without hesitation. I knew also that it is by his conduct in his first action that a commanding officer gains a good or a bad reputation amongst his men. My regiment was composed of battle-hardened troopers: I raised them to the gallop and, with me at their head, we fell on the Russian Grenadiers, who stood firm behind their bayonets. They were, however, overwhelmed by our first impetuous charge, and once their ranks had been penetrated, my terrible chasseurs, using the points of their sabres inflicted a frightful slaughter. The enemy retreated to the causeway of the bridge, where we followed them so closely that, on reaching the other side, they were unable to re-form, and our men got amongst them, killing all whom they could reach. When the Russian colonel was killed, his regiment, without leadership, lost heart and, seeing that the French skirmishers had now reached the bridge, they surrendered. I lost seven men killed and some twenty wounded, but captured a flag and two thousand prisoners. After this action, we advanced onto the open ground where we took a great number of fugitives, several guns and many horses.
Marshal Oudinot had watched this action from a vantage point in the town, and he came to congratulate the regiment, for which he henceforth had a particular regard, which it well merited. I was proud to be in command of such men and when the marshal told me that he intended to recommend me for promotion to colonel, I was afraid that the Emperor would go back on his original plan, and post me to the first regiment which became vacant. How strange are the twists of fortune! The successful action at Wilkomir, where the 23rd earned such a fine reputation, nearly led on a later occasion to its destruction, because the courage which it had displayed at the time resulted in its being chosen to carry out a mission which was virtually impossible, which I shall describe shortly. Let us now return to Wilna, where the Emperor was beginning to meet with some of the difficulties which were to wreck his whole gigantic undertaking.
The first of these concerned the reorganisation of Lithuania, which we had just conquered. This had to be carried out in away which would please not only those provinces which were still occupied by Russia, but also those of the duchies of Posen and Galicia, which ancient treaties had incorporated into Prussia and Austria, Napoleon's allies, whom, for the time being, it was important not to offend.
The most committed of the noblemen who ruled the various parts of Poland proposed to Napoleon that they would raise all the provinces and place at his disposal more than 300,000 men on the day that he announced officially that all the partitions to which the country had been subjected were annulled, and that the kingdom of Poland was reconstituted. The Emperor, although he was aware of the benefits he would gain from such an armed uprising, could not conceal from himself the fact that its first result would be to involve him in war with Austria and Prussia, which rather than see themselves deprived of these huge and flourishing provinces would join their arms to those of Russia. Above all, he doubted the constancy of the Poles, who, after dragging him into war with the three most powerful of the northern nations, might perhaps fail to deliver their promised support. The Emperor therefore replied to these propositions that he would not recognise the kingdom of Poland until the inhabitants of these huge areas had shown themselves worthy of independence by rising against their oppressors. This now created a vicious circle, Napoleon would not recognise the kingdom of Poland until the Poles took action, and the Poles would not take any action until he did. An indication that Napoleon, in going to war with Russia, had no intention other than to enforce the continental blockade is the fact that he had not brought to the Nieman any arms or uniforms for the men which the Poles might have supplied.
Be that as it may, some influential noblemen, in an attempt to force Napoleon's hand, set up a National Diet in Warsaw, which was attended by a small number of deputies. The first act of this assembly was to proclaim the Reconstitution and Independence of the Ancient Kingdom of Poland. The echo of this patriotic declaration rang throughout all the provinces, whether Russian, Prussian or Austrian, and for several days it was believed that there would be an uprising which would probably favour Napoleon, but this unthinking exaltation did not last long among the Poles, of whom only a few hundred came to join us. The cooling off was so rapid that the town of Wilna and its surroundings could provide no more than twenty men to form a guard of honour for the Emperor. If the Poles had displayed at this time, a hundredth part of the energy and enthusiasm which they displayed during the insurrection of 1830-1831, they might have recovered their independence and their liberty, but, far from coming to the aid of the French troops, they denied them all necessities, and during this campaign our soldiers often had to take by force the food and forage which the inhabitants, and above all the nobles, hid from us, but handed over to the Russians, their persecutors. This partiality in favour of our enemies enraged our men and gave rise to some unpleasant scenes which M. de Sgur has stigmatised as disgraceful pillage! It is however impossible to prevent the weary and wretched soldiers who have received no issue of rations from commandeering the bread and the livestock which they need for their survival.
The need to maintain order in the provinces occupied by the army led the Emperor, in spite of everything, to appoint prefects and sub-prefects who were chosen from the most enlightened Poles, but their administration was illusory and no help to the French army. The main reason for the apathy of the Lithuanian Poles was the self-interested attachment of the nobility to the Russian government, which upheld their rights over their peasantry, to whom they feared the French might award their freedom, for all those Polish noblemen, who talked unceasingly about freedom, kept their peasants in the most brutish serfdom.
Although the concentration of French troops on their frontiers should have warned the Russians that hostilities were about to commence, they were nonetheless taken by surprise by the crossing of the Nieman, which they nowhere opposed. Their army began a retreat towards the Duna (Dvina) on the left bank of which they had prepared, at Drissa, an immense entrenched camp. From all parts the different French Corps followed the Russian columns. Prince Murat was in command of the cavalry of the advance-guard, and every evening he caught up with the Russian rear-guard; but after some skirmishing they made off during the night by forced marches, without it being possible to bring them to a decisive action.
During the first days of our invasion of Russia, the enemy had made the very serious mistake of allowing Napoleon to split their forces, so that the greater part of their army, led by the Emperor Alexander and Marshal Barclay, had been driven back to the Duna, while the remainder, commanded by Bagration, was on the upper Nieman around Mir, eighty leagues from the main body. Cut off in this way, Bagration tried to join the Emperor Alexander by going through Minsk; but Napoleon had entrusted the protection of Minsk to Marshal Davout, who vigourously repelled the Russians and drove them back to Bobruisk, which he knew was supposed to be guarded by Jrme Bonaparte, at the head of two corps , amounting to 60,000 men. Bagration was about to be forced to surrender when he was saved by the foolishness of Jrme, who had not accepted the advice which Davout had given him, and failing to recognise the superior wisdom of the experienced and successful marshal, had decided to go his own way, whereupon he manoeuvred his troops so ineptly that Bagration was able to escape from this first danger. Davout, however, followed him with his usual tenacity, and caught up with him on the road to Mohilew, where, although he had no more than 12,000 men, he attacked the 36,000 Russians and defeated them; though admittedly the Russians were surprised on an area of very broken ground which prevented them from making the best use of their superior numbers. Bagration was compelled to cross the Borysthenia much lower down at Novoi-Bychow, and being now out of reach of Davout he was able to rejoin the main Russian army at Smolensk.
During the marches and countermarches which Bagration undertook in his efforts to evade Davout, he surprised the brigade of French cavalry comannded by General Bordesoulle, and captured from him the whole of the 3rd Regiment of Chasseurs, whose colonel was my friend Saint-Mars.
The elimination of Bagration's force would have been of tremendous benefit to Napoleon, so his fury with King Jrme was unbounded. He ordered him to quit the army immediately and return to Westphalia, a rigourous but necessary measure, which had the effect of greatly damaging King Jrme's reputation in the army. However, one has to ask if he was entirely to blame? His major mistake was to think that his dignity as a sovereign should not permit him to accept the advice of a simple marshal, but Napoleon knew perfectly well that the young prince had never in his life commanded so much as a single battalion, nor taken part in the most minor skirmish, and yet he confided to his care an army of 60,000 men, and this at a somewhat critical juncture. General Junot, who replaced Jrme, was, before long, also guilty of a serious blunder.
It was around this time that the Russian emperor sent one of his ministers, Count Balachoff,to parley with Napoleon, who was still in Wilna. The purpose of this discussion has never been entirely clear; there were those who believed it was to arrange an armistice, but they were quickly disabused by the departure of the Count, and it appeared later that the English, who had a tremendous influence in the Russian court and the army, had taken umbrage at this mission, and fearing that Alexander might be considering coming to terms with Napoleon, they had loudly insisted that he should leave the army and return to St.Petersburg. Alexander accepted this proposal, but ensured that his brother, Constantine came with him. Left to themselves, and egged on by the Englishman Wilson, the Russian generals sought to wage war with a ferocity which might shake the French morale, so they ordered their troops to lay waste the country behind them as they withdrew, by burning all the houses and everything else which they could not carry away.
While Napoleon, from the central point of Wilna, was directing the various units of his army, the columns led by Murat, Ney, Montbrun, Nansouty and Oudinot had, on the 15th of July , reached the river Dvina. Oudinot, who had probably misunderstood the Emperor's orders, took the unusual step of going down the left bank of the river, while Wittgenstein and his men were going up the river on the other side. He arrived opposite Dvinaburg, an old walled town whose fortifications were in bad repair, where he hoped to capture the bridge and, having crossed to the other bank, to attack Wittgenstein from the rear. Wittgenstein, however, on leaving Dvinaburg, had left behind a strong garrison with numerous pieces of artillery. My regiment, as usual, constituted the advance-guard, which on this day was led by Marshal Oudinot himself.
The town of Dvinaburg is on the right bank of the river. We arrived on the left bank, where there is a considerable fortification which protects the bridge which links it to the town, from which it is separated by the river, which is very wide at this point. A quarter of a league from the fortifications, which Marshal Oudinot claimed were not equipped with cannon, I came on a Russian battalion, whose left flank was protected by the river and whose front was covered by the planks and hutments of an abandoned camp. In such a position the enemy was very difficult for cavalry to attack; however the Marshal ordered me to attack them. After I had left it to individual officers to make their way through the gaps between the huts, I ordered the charge, but the regiment had hardly gone a few paces, amid a shower of bullets from the Russian infantry, when the artillery, whose existence the Marshal had denied, thundered from the battlements, to which we were so close that the canisters of grape-shot were going over our heads before they had time to burst. A stray ball from one of them went through a fisherman's hut and broke the leg of the trumpeter who was sounding the charge by my side...I lost several men there. Marshal Oudinot, who had made a serious mistake in attacking a position which was protected by cannon, hoped to flush out the Russian infantry by sending in a Portuguese battalion which was ahead of our infantry; but these foreigners, former prisoners of war, who had been enlisted, somewhat unwillingly, into the French army, made little headway and we remained exposed. Seeing that Oudinot bore the enemy fire with courage but without giving any orders, I thought that if this state of affairs continued for a few minutes more, my regiment was going to wiped out, so I told my men to spread out and attack the enemy infantry in open order, with the double aim of driving them out of their position and preventing the gunners from firing for fear of hitting their own men who were intermingled with ours. Cut down by my troopers the defenders of the camp fled towards the bridgehead, but the garrison of this outpost was composed of recent recruits, who, fearing that we would follow the fugitives into the fortifications, hurriedly closed the gates; which compelled them to make for the pontoon bridge in an attempt to reach the other bank and the shelter of the town of Dvinaburg itself.
The bridge had no guard-rail. The pontoons wobbled. The river was deep and wide and I could see the armed garrison on the other side trying to close the gates. It seemed to me to be folly to advance any further. Thinking that the regiment had done enough, I had halted them when the Marshal arrived, shouting "Forward the twenty-third! Do as you did at Wilkomir! Cross the bridge! Force the gates! Seize the town!" General Lorencez tried in vain to persuade him that the difficulties were too great, and that a regiment of cavalry could not attack a fortress, however badly defended, if to get there they had to cross, two abreast, a third-rate pontoon bridge; but the Marshal persisted, "They will be able to take advantage of the disorder and fears of the enemy" he said, and repeated his order to me to attack the town. I obeyed; but I was scarcely on the first span of the bridge, at the head of the leading section of my men, when the garrison, having managed to close the gates which led to the river, mounted the ramparts, from where they opened fire on us. The slender line which we presented offered a poor target for these inadequately trained men, so that their musket and cannon fire caused us fewer casualties than I had feared, but on hearing the fortress firing on us, the defenders of the bridgehead recovered their nerve and joined in the fray. Oudinot, seeing the 23rd caught between two fires, at the start of an unstable bridge across which it was impossible to advance, conveyed to me the order to retreat. The large gap which I had left between each section allowed them to turn round without too much confusion, however, two men and their horses fell into the river and were drowned. In order to regain the left bank we had to pass once more under the ramparts of the bridgehead, when we were exposed to a rolling fire which, fortunately, was aimed by unskilled militia, for if we had been up against trained marksmen, the regiment could have been wholly destroyed.
This unsuccessful action, so imprudently undertaken, cost me thirty men killed and many wounded, and it was to be hoped that the Marshal would be content with this fruitless effort, especially in view of the fact that the Emperor had not ordered him to take Dvinaburg; but, as soon as the infantry had arrived, he made a new assault on the bridgehead, which had now been reinforced by a company of Grenadiers, who, at the sound of firing had hurried from nearby billets, so that our troops were once more repelled with much greater losses than those suffered by the 23rd. When the Emperor heard of this abortive attack he placed the blame squarely on Marshal Oudinot.
At this time, my regiment was brigaded with the 24th Chasseurs, and General Castex, who commanded this brigade, had instituted an admirable routine in our method of operation. Each of the two regiments took it in turn to form, for twenty-four hours, the advance-guard if we were approaching the enemy, or the rear-guard if we were retreating, and to provide all the sentries, pickets and so on, while the other regiment marched peacefully along, recovering from the fatigues of the day before and preparing for those of the morrow, which did not prevent it from going to the aid of the unit on duty, if they came in contact with the enemy. This system, which was not in the regulations, had the great advantage of never separating the men from their officers or their comrades, or placing them under the orders of unknown commanders and mingling them with troopers of another regiment. Moreover, during the night, half of the brigade slept, while the other half watched over them. However, since no system is without its shortcomings, it could so happen, by chance, that it was the same regiment which was more often on duty when a serious engagement occurred, as happened to the 23rd at Wilkomir and Dvinaburg. It was the sort of luck which we had throughout the campaign, but we never complained. We came out of all these events well and were often envied by the 24th, who had fewer occasions on which to distinguish themselves.
While Oudinot was making his assault on Dvinaburg, the corps commanded by Ney, as well as the immense body of cavalry commanded by Murat, were proceeding up the left bank of the Dvina towards Polotsk, while Wittgenstein's Russian army followed the same route on the right bank. Being separated from the enemy by the river, our troops grew careless, and pitched their bivouacs in the French manner, much too close to its bank. Wittgenstein had noticed this and he allowed the bulk of the French force to draw ahead. The last unit in the line of march was Sbastiani's division, which had as its rear-guard the brigade commanded by General Saint-Genis, who had served as an officer in the army of Egypt, and who, although courageous, was not very bright. When he had reached a some way beyond the little town of Drouia, General Saint-Genis, on the orders of Sbastiani, put his troops into bivouac some two hundred paces from the river, which was believed to be uncrossable without boats. Wittgenstein, however, knew of a ford, and during the night he made use of it to send across the river a division of cavalry, which fell on the French troops and captured almost the entire brigade, including General Saint-Genis. This forced Sbastiani to hurry upstream with the rest of his division to make contact with the Corps commanded by Montbrun. After this swift raid, Wittgenstein recalled his troops and continued his march up the Dvina. The affair did Sbastiani's reputation a great deal of harm and drew down on his head the reproaches of the Emperor.
Shortly after this regrettable incident, Oudinot having been ordered to leave Dvinaburg and go up the river to rejoin Ney and Montbrun, his army corps took the same route as they had done and passed the town of Drouia. The Marshal intended to encamp his force some three leagues further on, but he feared that the enemy might use the ford to send across large parties of men to harass the great convoy which trailed behind him, so he decided that while he made off into the distance, with the main body of the troops, he would leave behind a regiment of General Castex's brigade in the position which had been occupied by General Saint-Genis, to watch the ford. As my regiment was on duty, there fell to it the dangerous task of remaining behind at Drouia on their own until the following morning. I knew that the greater part of Wittgenstein's force had gone up the river, but I could see that he had left behind, not far from the ford, two strong regiments of cavalry, a force more than sufficient to overcome me.
However much I might have wished to carry out the order to set up my bivouac on the spot used two days previously by Saint-Genis, this was impossible, for the ground was littered with more than two hundred bodies in a state of putrefaction, and to this major reason was linked another not less important. What I had seen and what I had learned about war had convinced me that the best means of defending a river against an enemy whose aim is not to establish himself on the bank which one occupies, is to keep the main body of one's troops well back from the river edge; firstly to have timely warning of the enemy's approach, and secondly, because, as it his intention to make a sudden raid and then retire smartly, he dare not go too far from the spot where he can cross back to the other side. So I settled the regiment half a league from the Dvina, on some slightly undulating ground. I left only some two-man sentinels on the bank, because, when it is purely a matter of observation, two men can see as much as a large picket. Several lines of troopers were placed one after the other between these sentinels and our bivouac, where, like a spider at the bottom of its web, I could be rapidly informed by these threads about what was going on in the area which it was my duty to guard. I had forbidden all fires and even the lighting of pipes, and had ordered complete silence.
The nights are extremely short in Russia in the month of July, but this one seemed very long to me, so afraid was I that I might be attacked during the hours of darkness by a force superior in strength to my own. Half of the men were in the saddle, the remainder were allowing their horses to graze but were ready to mount if given the signal. All seemed quiet on the opposite bank, when my Polish servant, who spoke Russian fluently, came to tell me that he had heard one old Jewish woman who lived in a nearby house say to another, "The lantern has been lit in the clock tower at Morki. The attack is going to begin." I had the two women brought to me, and questioned by Lorentz. They said that, as they were afraid of their village becoming a battleground for the two enemies, they had been alarmed to see the lamp lit in the bell tower of the church at Morki, which, the night before last had been the signal for the Russian troops to cross the ford and attack the French camp.
Although I was prepared for any eventuality, this was a piece of very useful information. At once the regiment was on horse, sabres in their hands. The sentinels by the river and the string of horsemen stretched across the plain passed from man to man, in low voices, the orders to come back. Two of the boldest sous-officiers, Prud'homme and Graft, went with Lieutenant Bertin to see what the enemy was doing. He came back shortly to say that a large column of Russian cavalry was crossing the ford, and that already there were some squadrons on our side of the river; but seemingly taken aback at not finding us camped at the same place as Saint-Genis they had halted, fearing, no doubt to go too far from their only means of retreat; then, having decided to go on, they were now approaching at a walk, and were not far off.
I immediately set fire to a huge haystack and to several barns which stood on some high ground, and by the light of the flames I could easily distinguish the enemy column, consisting of Grodno Hussars. I had with me about a thousand brave men, and with a cry of "Vive L'Emperor!" we charged at the gallop towards the Russians who, taken by surprise by this fierce and unexpected attack, turned tail and rushed in disorder to the ford. There they came face to face with a regiment of dragoons who, being part of their brigade had followed them and were just emerging from the river. This resulted in the most fearful confusion which enabled our men to kill many of the enemy and take many horses. The Russians tried to recross the ford in a mob to escape from the fire which my men aimed at them from the bank and a number of them were drowned. Our surprise attack had so startled the enemy who had thought to find us asleep, that they put up no resistance, and I was able to return to our bivouac without having to regret the death or wounding of any of our number. The break of day disclosed the field of battle covered by some hundreds of dead or wounded Russians. I left the wounded in the care of the inhabitants of the village near which we had spent the night, and took to the road to rejoin Marshal Oudinot, with whom I caught up that same evening. The Marshal gave me a hearty welcome and complemented the regiment on their conduct.
2nd Corps continued its march up the left bank of the Dvina and in three days arrived opposite Polotsk. There we learned that the Emperor had at last left Wilna, where he had spent twenty days, and was heading for Vitepsk, a town of some size, which he intended to make his new centre of operations.
On quitting Wilna, the Emperor had left the Duc de Bassano as governor of the province of Lithuania and General Hogendorp as military commander. Neither of these two officials was suited to organising the rear echelons of an army. The Duc de Bassano, a former diplomat and private secretary, knew nothing about administration, while the Dutchman Hogendorp, who spoke little French and had no idea of our military regulations and customs, was not likely to make much impression on those French who passed through Wilna or on the local nobility. So the resources available in Lithuania were of no help to our troops.
The town of Polotsk is situated on the right bank of the Dvina. Its houses are built of wood and it is dominated by a very large and splendid college, at that time occupied by the Jesuits, almost all of whom were French. It is surrounded by an earthwork fortification, having at one time undergone a siege during the war waged by Charles XII against Peter the Great. The corps commanded by Ney, Murat and Montbrun, in order to get from Drissa to Witepsk, had built a pontoon bridge across the Dvina, opposite Polotsk, which they left for Oudinot's corps, which was going to take the road for St.Petersburg. It was from here that 2nd Corps took a different direction to that of the Grande Arme, which we did not see again until the following winter, at the crossing of the Beresina.
It would require several volumes to describe the manoeuvres and the battles of that part of the army which followed the Emperor to Moscow. I shall therefore limit myself to describing the salient events as they occur.
On the 25th of July, there took place near to Ostrovno an advance-guard action, in which our infantry were successful, but where several regiments of cavalry were too hastily engaged by Murat. The 16th Chasseurs was amongst this number, and my brother, who commanded a squadron, was captured. He was taken far beyond Moscow to Sataroff, on the Volga, where he joined Colonel Saint-Mars and Octave de Sgur. They helped each other to bear the boredom of captivity, to which my brother was already accustomed, as he had spent several years in the prisons and hulks of Spain. The fortunes of war treated us both differently: Adolphe was captured three times but never wounded, while I was often wounded but never captured.
While the Emperor, now in control of Wilna, tried in vain to manoeuvre the Russian army into a decisive battle, Oudinot's corps, having crossed the Dvina at Polotsk, established itself in front of this town, facing the numerous troops of General Wittgenstein who formed the enemy right wing. Before I describe the events which took place on the banks of the Dvina, I should, perhaps, acquaint you with the composition of 2nd Corps.
Marshal Oudinot, who commanded the Corps, had under his orders no more than 44,000 men, divided into three divisions of infantry, commanded by Generals Legrand, Verdier and Merle. There were two brigades of light cavalry. The first, composed of the 23rd and the 24th regiments of Chasseurs, was commanded by General Castex, an excellent officer on all counts. The second was formed of the 7th and 20th Chasseurs and the 8th Polish Lancers, commanded by General Corbineau, a brave but dull-witted officer. These brigades were not combined into a single division, but were employed wherever the Marshal thought necessary.
The 24th Chasseurs, with which my regiment was brigaded, was a first class unit which would have done very well if there had been a bond of sympathy between the men and their commander. Unfortunately Colonel A... was very hard on his subordinates, who, for their part, disliked him. This state of affairs led General Castex to travel and camp with the 23rd, and to unite his field kitchen with mine, even though he had once served in the 24th. Colonel A..., big, skillful and always perfectly mounted, showed up well in engagements featuring the "arme blanche", but was thought not to be so keen on those in which fire-arms and artillery were involved. In spite of this, the Emperor recognised in him qualities which made him undoubtedly the best light cavalry officer in our European armies. No one had a better eye for country. Before he set out, he could predict where there would be obstacles not shown on the map, and where streams, roads and even paths would lead to, and deduce from enemy movements forecasts which were almost always correct. In all the aspects of war, great or small, he was remarkably adept. The Emperor had often used him for reconnaissance in the past and had recommended him to Marshal Oudinot, who frequently called him into consultation; with the result that many of the laborious and dangerous jobs fell to my regiment.
Hardly had the various army corps which had preceded us into Polotsk left to join the Emperor at Witepsk, when Oudinot, collecting his troops into a single immense column on the road to St.Petersburg, marched to attack Wittgenstein's army, which we believed was in a position some ten leagues from us, between two little towns named Sebej and Newel. At the end of the day we made our bivouac on the banks of the Drissa. This tributary of the Dvina is no more than a rivulet at the coaching inn of Siwotschina, where it is crossed by the main road to St.Petersburg and where, as there is no bridge, the Russian government has instead cut back the steep banks between which the stream runs to make a gently sloping approach and has paved its bed to the same width as the road, thus creating a passable ford. To the right and left of the ford, however, troops and vehicles cannot cross, because of the steepness of the banks. I mention this because, three days later this spot was the scene of a brisk engagement.
The next day, the 30th, my regiment being on duty, I took my place at the head of the advance-guard and followed by the whole army corps I crossed the ford through the Drissa. The heat was most oppressive, and in the dust-covered corn fields at the side of the road one could see two large areas where the grain had been flattened and crushed, as if a roller had been dragged over it, indicating the passage of a large column of infantry. Suddenly, near the coaching inn of Kliastitsoui these signs disappeared from the main road, and could be seen to the left on a wide side-road which led to Jacoubovo. It was evident that the enemy had turned off the road to Sebej at this point and was preparing to attack our left flank. This seemed to me to be a serious matter, so I halted our troops and sent a message to warn my general. The Marshal however, who usually kept in view of the advance-guard, had seen that I had halted. He came along at the gallop and in spite of the opinions of Generals Castex and Lorencez, he ordered me to continue up the main road. I had scarcely gone a league when I saw coming towards me a calische drawn by two post-horses....I stopped it and I saw a Russian officer who, overcome by the heat, was lying full-length on its floor. This young man, the son of the nobleman who owned the coaching inn of Kliastitsoui which I had just passed, was one of Wittgenstein's aides-de-camp, and was returning from St.Petersburg with the reply to some despatches which the general had sent to the government. You may imagine his surprise when, startled out of his sleep, he found himself surrounded by our bearded chasseurs, and saw not far away the numerous columns of French soldiers. He could not understand why he had not encountered Wittgenstein's army, or at least some of his scouts, between Sebej and the spot where we were; but his astonishment confirmed the opinion held by General Castex and me that Wittgenstein, to lay a trap for Oudinot, had suddenly quitted the road to St.Petersburg to attack the left flank and the rear of the French force. In fact, it was not long before we heard the sound of artillery and musket-fire.
Marshal Oudinot, although taken by surprise by this unexpected attack, extricated himself quite well from the tight spot in which he had landed himself. Ordering his columns to left face, he presented a line to the attacker, who was repulsed so vigourously that he did not care to renew the attack that day, and retired to Jakoubovo. Wittgenstein's cavalry had, however, enjoyed a considerable success, for they had captured, in the French rear, some thousand men and some of our equipment, amongst other things all our mobile forges. This was a serious loss, which was felt badly by the cavalry of 2nd Corps throughout the whole of the campaign. After this engagement, Oudinot's troops having taken up their position, Castex was ordered to return to Kliastitsoui to guard the point at which the road branched, where we were joined by General Maison's infantry. The Russian officer held prisoner in the house belonging to his father did us the honours with good grace.
In expectation of a major battle on the following day, the commanders of both armies had made their dispositions, and, at daybreak, the Russians attacked the inn at Kliastitsoui, which constituted the French right wing. Although in these circumstances both our regiments would be in action, the regiment on duty would be in the first rank, and it was the turn of the 24th Chasseurs. To avoid any possibility of hesitation, General Castex placed himself at the head of the regiment, and falling rapidly on the Russians, he overran them and took 400 prisoners without suffering many casualties. He was in the forefront of the attack, and his horse was killed by a bayonet thrust. In the resultant fall his foot had been trodden on, and he was unable for several days to lead the brigade. His place was taken by Colonel A....
The Russian battalions which the 24th had just defeated were immediately replaced by others which, emerging from Jacoubovo, marched rapidly towards us. The Marshal ordered A...to attack them, and we were told to advance, which we did without delay. Having arrived at the front line, we arranged ourselves in battle order and approached the Russians, who awaited us resolutely. As soon as we were within range, I ordered the charge... It was carried out with the greatest vigour, for my troopers, as well as displaying their usual courage, were aware that their comrades of the 24th were watching their every move. The Russians made what I consider to be the fatal mistake of discharging all their weapons at once by firing a volley, which, badly aimed, killed only a few men and horses. Continuous fire would have been much more devastating. They then needed to reload, but we did not give them time; our excellent horses, galloping at full speed, hit them with such force that many of them were knocked to the ground. A good number got to their feet and attempted to defend themselves with their bayonets against the sabres of our Chasseurs, but after suffering a great many casualties they fell back, then broke ranks, and a good number were killed or captured as they fled towards a cavalry regiment which had come to their aid. This was the Grodno Hussars.
I have noticed that when a unit has defeated another, it always maintains its superiority. I saw here a further proof of this, for the Chasseurs of the 23rd hurled themselves on the Grodno Hussars, as if they were easy prey, having previously beaten them soundly in a night battle at Drouia, and the Hussars, having recognised their enemy, took to their heels. This regiment, during the rest of the campaign, invariably faced the 23rd, who always retained their ascendancy. While these events were taking place on our right wing, the infantry on the left and in the centre had attacked the Russians who, defeated everywhere, abandoned the field of battle and at nightfall went to take up a position about a league away. Our army settled itself in the area which it occupied, between Jakoubovo and the road junction at Kliastitsoui. There was much celebration that night in the brigade bivouacs, on account of our victory. My regiment had captured the flag of the Tamboff infantry, and the 24th had also taken that of the Russian unit which they had overcome; but their satisfaction was diminished by the knowledge that two of their squadron commanders had been wounded, both of whom however, made a rapid recovery and served throughout the rest of the campaign.
When a unit endeavours to outflank an enemy it risks being itself outflanked. This is what happened to Wittgenstein, for on the night of the 29th, having left the St. Petersburg road to attack the left and rear of the French army, he had compromised his line of communication, which Oudinot could have cut completely if he taken full advantage of the victory achieved on the 30th. The Russian situation was made worse by the fact that while facing a victorious army which barred its line of retreat it learned that Marshal Macdonald, having crossed the Dvina and taken the fort of Dvinaberg, was advancing on the Russian rear. To get out of this difficulty, Wittgenstein had, during the night after the battle, made a cross-country detour which took his army back on to the St.Petersburg road at a point beyond the inn at Kliastitsoui. Since, however, he was afraid that the French troops who were in that area might fall on his force during this flank move, he decided to prevent them from doing so by himself attacking them with superior strength, while the bulk of his army regained the route to St.Petersburg and reopened his communications with Sebej.
The next day, the 31st of July, my regiment came on duty at dawn, when it could be seen that part of the army which we had defeated the day before had avoided our right wing and was in full flight towards Sebej, while the remainder were about to attack us at Kliastitsoui. All of Marshal Oudinot's troops were immediately stood to, but while the generals were arranging them in battle order, a strong column of Russian Grenadiers attacked our allies, the Portuguese, and reduced them to complete disorder; they then turned on the large and solid coaching inn, an important point which they were about to take, when Marshal Oudinot, always in the forefront of any action, hurried to my regiment, which was already at the outposts, and ordered me to try to stop or at least slow down the enemy advance until the arrival of our infantry which was approaching rapidly. I took my regiment off at the gallop, and ordering the trumpeter to sound the charge, I struck the right of the enemy line obliquely, which greatly hindered the ability of their infantry and Grenadiers to fire on us, and they were about to be cut down, for they were already in disorder, when either spontaneously or under the orders of their officers, they made an about turn and ran for a large ditch which they had behind them. They all scrambled into it and from its cover they directed a continuous fire at us. Immediately I had six or seven men killed and some twenty wounded and I was hit by a stray ball in the left shoulder. My troopers had their blood up, but they could not attack men whom it was physically impossible to reach. At this moment Generak Maison arrived with his infantry and having ordered me to withdraw behind his columns, he attacked the ditch from both ends and all its defenders were either killed or made prisoner.
As for me, with a painful wound I was taken back to the inn and removed with difficulty from my horse. The good Dr. Parot, the regimental surgeon, came to dress my injury, but he had scarcely started this when he was forced to break off. There was a new Russian assault and a hail of ball fell about us, so that we had to remove ourselves out of range of the fire. The doctor found that my injury was serious and could have been fatal if the thick braiding of my epaulet, through which the ball had passed, had not deflected it and lessened its force. The blow had been sufficiently heavy to knock me back almost onto my horse's crupper, so that the officers and troopers who were following me thought I had been killed, and I would have fallen if my orderlies had not supported me. The dressing was very painful for the ball was embedded in the bone at the point where the upper arm joins the collar-bone. To get it out the wound had to be enlarged and you can still see the big scar.
I can promise you that if I had been already a colonel, I would have joined the many wounded who were being sent back to Polotsk, and after crossing the Dvina I would have sought some Lithuanian town where I might be cared for; but I was only a squadron commander and at any time the Emperor could arrive at Witepsk and hold a revue, at which he would award nothing except to those who were present bearing arms. This custom which at first may seem cruel, was based nevertheless on the interest of the service, for it encouraged the wounded not to remain in hospital any longer than was necessary, and to rejoin their units as soon as they were fit enough to do so. In view of the above, my success in action against the enemy, my recent wound received in combat and my devotion to the regiment, all compelled me not to go away; so I stayed in spite of the severe pain which I was suffering, and having put my arm in a sling as well as I could, and had myself hoisted onto horseback, I rejoined my regiment.
Since I had been wounded, things had changed considerably; our troops had defeated those of Wittgenstein and taken a great number of prisoners, but the Russians had reached the St. Petersburg road and were continuing their retreat to Sebej.
To get to this town from the inn at Kliastitsoui, one must cross the enormous marsh of Khodanui, in the middle of which the main road is raised on an embankment made of huge pine trees laid one next to another. On each side of this causeway is a ditch or rather a wide and deep canal, and there is no other route except by making an exceedingly long detour. The embankment is almost a league long, but of considerable width, so that, it being impossible to put flank guards in the marsh, the Russians marched in dense columns along this artificial road, beyond which our maps showed open country. Marshal Oudinot, aiming at further victory, had decided to follow them, and for this reason he had already despatched on the road to the marsh General Verdier's infantry, which was to be followed first by Castex's brigade of cavalry, then the whole army corps . My regiment had not yet joined the line when I returned to it.
When, in spite of my injury, I took up my place at their head, I received a general acclamation from both officers and men, which showed the affection and esteem in which these brave people held me; I was deeply touched by this, and even more so by the welcome I received from Major Fontaine. This officer, although both courageous and competent, was so unambitious that he had remained a captain for eighteen years, having refused promotion three times, which he had finally accepted only on a direct order from the Emperor.
So I once more took command of the 23rd, and began to cross the marsh behind General Verdier's division, at which the rear unit of the enemy column fired only a few long range shots while they were still on the causeway. When, however, our infantry reached the open country, they saw the Russian army deployed in battle formation, and were treated to a devastating barrage of artillery fire. Nevertheless, in spite of their losses the French battalions continued to advance. Soon they were all off the embankment and it was the turn of my regiment, at the head of the brigade, to reach the open ground. Colonel A... who was the temporary brigade commander was not there to give me orders, so I thought it right to remove my regiment from this dangerous spot and I led them off at the gallop as soon as the infantry gave me room; however I had seven or eight men killed and a greater number wounded. The 24th, who followed me, also suffered many casualties. The same happened to General Legrand's infantry division; but as soon as they were formed up on the plain, Marshal Oudinot attacked the enemy lines, and they directed their artillery fire at several different points so that the exit from the marsh would have become less perilous for the remainder of the army, if Wittgenstein had not at that moment attacked with all his force the units which we had in the open. His superiority in numbers compelled us to give ground and we were driven back towards the causeway of the Khodanui. Fortunately the track was very wide, which allowed us to proceed by platoons. As soon as we left the plain the cavalry became more of a hindrance than a help. The marshal put us in front of the retreat; we were followed by Verdier's division, whose general had been very seriously wounded, and General Legrand's division made the rear-guard. The last brigade of this division, commanded by General Albert, had to fight a very sharp action while its last battalions were getting onto the causeway, but once they were formed into columns General Albert put eight artillery pieces at the tail end which kept up a continuous fire during the retreat, so it was the turn of the enemy to suffer heavy casualties. By contrast, the Russian artillery rarely discharged a shot because the guns had to be turned round to fire at us and then turned back to continue the pursuit, a lengthy and difficult operation on the causeway, so that they did us little damage.
The day was ending when the French troops, having crossed the marsh, repassed Kliastitsoui and found themselves once more on the banks of the Drissa, at the ford of Sivotschina which they had crossed in the morning to follow the Russians who had been defeated at Kliastitsoui. The Russians had their revenge, for having caused us seven or eight hundred casualties on the plain beyond the marsh they now had a sword at our backs. To put an end to the fighting and allow the army some rest, Marshal Oudinot led it across the ford to set up camp at Bieloe.
Night was falling when the outposts which had been left to watch the Drissa, reported that the enemy were crossing the river. The Marshal went there at once, and could see that eight Russian battalions with a battery of fourteen guns were setting up their bivouac on our side of the river, while the remainder of the army stayed on the other side, preparing no doubt to cross over and attack us on the morrow. This advance party was commanded by General Koulnieff, an enterprising officer but one who, like most of the Russian officers of the period drank to excess. It would seem that on this evening he had drunk more than usual, for it is otherwise difficult to explain why he made the grave error of coming, with no more than eight battalions to set up camp a short distance from an army of forty thousand men, and that in a most unfavourable position; for he had, some two hundred paces behind him, the Drissa, which could not be crossed except by the ford; not because of the depth of the water but because it ran between very steep banks fifteen to twenty feet high. Koulnieff had therefore no other line of retreat but the ford. Could it be that he hoped that his eight battalions and fourteen canons would be able, if defeated, to withdraw smartly across this one passage, in the face of an attack which might be launched at any moment by the French army from nearby Bieloe? The answer must be no, but general Koulnieff was in no state to consider the matter when he put his camp on the left bank of the river. It is perhaps surprising that Wittgenstein should have entrusted the command of his advance guard to Koulnieff, of whose intemperate habits he must have been aware.
While the head of the Russian column approached rashly to within such a short distance of us, a great confusion reigned, not among the troops, but among their leaders. Marshal Oudinot, although the bravest of men, lacked consistency, and passed rapidly from a plan of attack to one of a withdrawal. The losses which he had suffered towards the end of the day on the other side of the great marsh had thrown him into a state of perplexity, and he could not think how he was to carry out the Emperor's orders, which were to push Wittgenstein back at least as far as Sebej and Newel. He was therefore delighted to receive, during the night, a despatch informing him of the imminent arrival of a Bavarian corps commanded by General Saint-Cyr, which the Emperor was placing under his orders; but instead of awaiting this powerful reinforcement in his present sound position, Oudinot, advised by the general of artillery Dulauloy, wished to make contact with the Bavarians by withdrawing his army as far as Polotsk. This inexplicable notion was warmly opposed by the group of generals summoned by the Marshal. General Legrand said that although our success of the morning had been counter-balanced by the losses of the evening, the army was still in good heart and ready to advance, and that to retreat to Polotsk would damage their morale and present them to the Bavarians as a defeated force coming to seek refuge amongst them; an idea which would arouse indignation in all French bosoms. This vigourous speech by Legrand was acclaimed by all the generals and the Marshal then gave up the project of a retreat.
There remained the question of what to do the next day. General Legrand, with the authority of his seniority, long service and experience in warfare, proposed that they should take advantage of the serious error made by Koulnieff by attacking the advance-guard so imprudently placed without support on the bank which we occupied, and drive them back into the Drissa which they had behind them. This advice having been accepted by the Marshal and all the group, the execution of it was confided to General Legrand.
Oudinot's army was encamped in a forest of huge, widely spaced pines, beyond which there was a very extensive clearing. The boundaries of the wood took the form of a bow, the two ends of which reached the Drissa, which formed as it were the bow-string. The Russians had set up their bivouac very close to the river, opposite the ford. Their frontage was protected by fourteen artillery pieces. General Legrand wanted to take the enemy by surprise, so he ordered General Albert to send a regiment of infantry to each of the ends of the wood from where they could attack the camp from the flank, as soon as they heard the approach of the cavalry who, emerging from the woods in the centre of the bow would go bald-headed for the Russian battalions and drive them into the ravine. The task given to the cavalry was plainly the most dangerous, for not only had they to make a frontal attack on an enemy armed with 6000 muskets but would also be exposed to the fire of fourteen artillery pieces before they could reach their objective. It was, however, hoped that by a surprise attack, the Russians might be caught asleep, and put up little resistance.
You have seen that my regiment having come on duty on the morning of the 31st July at Kliastitsoui, had continued to serve for the whole of that day, and should, according to the regulations, have been relieved by the 24th at 1 A.M. on the 1st August, and it was this regiment whose duty it was to carry out the attack, while mine remained in reserve. There being only enough space in the clearing between the woods and the stream for one regiment of cavalry. However, Colonel A... went to Oudinot and suggested to him that there was a danger that while we were preparing to attack the troops in front of us, General Wittgenstein might send a strong column to our right which could cross the Drissa at another ford which probably existed some three leagues upstream from where we were, and gaining our rear could capture our wounded and our equipment; and that it would be a good idea to send a regiment of cavalry to keep an eye on this ford. The Marshal fell in with this suggestion and Colonel A... whose regiment had just come on duty, quickly ordered his men into the saddle and led them off on this expedition which he had thought up, leaving to the 23rd the dangers of the battle which was about to take place.
My regiment received with calm the news of the perilous mission which had been thrust upon them and welcomed the appearance of the Marshal and General Legrand when they came to supervise the preparations for this important attack which we were about to carry out.
At this time all the French regiments, with the exception of the Cuirassiers, had a company of Grenadiers known as the lite company, whose customary position was on the right of the line, a position which they held in the 23rd. General Legrand observed to the Marshal that as the enemy had placed their artillery in front of their centre, it was there that most danger would lie, and in order to avoid any hesitation which might compromise the whole operation, it would be advisable to attack this point with the lite company, which was composed of the most seasoned soldiers mounted on the best horses. It was in vain that I assured the Marshal that the regiment was in all respects as solid in one part as in another, he ordered me to put the lite company in the centre, which I then did. I next gathered the officers together and explained to them in low tones what we were to do, and warned them that, the better to surprise the enemy, I would give no preparatory commands and would simply order the charge when we were within close range of the enemy guns. Once everything had been arranged, the regiment left its bivouac, in complete silence, at the first faint light of dawn, and made its way without difficulty through the wood, the great trees of which were widely spaced, and arrived at the level clearing in which was the Russian encampment. I alone in the regiment had no sabre in my hand, for having only one hand which I could use, I needed that to hold the reins of my horse. You will understand that this was a very unpleasant situation for a cavalry officer about to engage the enemy.
However, I had chosen to go with my regiment and so I placed myself in front of the lite company, having beside me their gallant captain, M. Courteau, one of the finest of officers and one whom I valued most highly.
All was quiet in the Russian camp, towards which we advanced slowly and in silence, and my hopes of achieving a total surprise were increased by the fact that General Koulnieff not having brought any cavalry across the ford, we saw no mounted outposts, and could distinguish by the feeble light of their fires only a few infantry sentries, posted so close to the camp that between their warning and our sudden arrival the Russians would have little chance to prepare themselves for defence. Suddenly, however, two prowling and suspicious Cossack peasants appeared on horseback, some thirty paces from our line, and after regarding it for a moment they fled towards the camp, where it was obvious that they intended to give warning of our presence. This mischance was very unfortunate, because had it not been for that we would certainly have reached the Russians without losing a man; however since we were now discovered and were in any case nearing the spot where I had decided to increase the speed of our advance, I urged my horse into a gallop; the regiment did the same, and shortly I gave the order to sound the charge.
At this signal my gallant troopers and I launched ourselves at the enemy, upon whom we fell like a thunderbolt. The two Cossacks had, however, raised the alarm. The gunners, sleeping beside their guns, grabbed their slow matches, and fourteen canons belched grapeshot at the regiment. Thirty-seven men, of whom nineteen belonged to the lite company, were killed outright. The brave Captain Courteau was amongst them, as was Lieutenant Lallouette. The Russian gunners were attempting to reload their guns when they were cut down by our men. We had few wounded, almost all the injuries having been fatal. We had some forty. horses killed, mine was maimed by a heavy bullet but was able to carry me to the Russian camp where the soldiers, rudely awakened from their sleep, were rushing to take up their arms, but were being sabred by our troopers, whom I had ordered to get between them and the rows of muskets, so that few were able to reach one and fire at us. Then, alerted by the sound of gunfire, General Albert's two regiments of infantry ran from the wood to attack the two sides of the camp, bayoneting all who resisted. The Russians, in disorder, were unable to withstand this triple attack. Many of them, who having arrived at night had not been able to see the height of the river banks, tried to escape by this route and falling fifteen or twenty feet onto the rocks were injured and in many cases killed.