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The Memoirs of General the Baron de Marbot, Translated by - Oliver C. Colt
by Baron de Marbot
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General Koulnieff, hardly awake, joined a group of two thousand men of whom about one third had muskets, and following mechanically this disorganised crowd he arrived at the ford, but I had given orders that this important spot should be occupied by five or six hundred horsemen, amongst whom were the lite company who, enraged at the loss of their captain, massacred most of the Russians. General Koulnieff, who had already been drinking, attacked Sergeant Legendre, who, thrusting his sabre into the Russian's neck, laid him dead at his feet. M. de. Sgur, in his story of the campaign of 1812, has General Koulnieff making a dying speech worthy of Homer. I was within a few feet of Sergeant Legendre when he drove his sabre into Koulnieff's throat, and I can certify that the General fell without uttering a word. The victory achieved by General Albert's infantry and the 23rd was complete. The enemy had at least 2000 men killed or wounded and we took around 4000 prisoners. The remainder perished by falling on the sharp rocks of the river. Some of the most agile Russians managed to rejoin Wittgenstein who, when he heard of the sanguinary defeat of his advance-guard, began a retreat toward Sebej.

Marshal Oudinot, encouraged by the resounding success which he had just gained, decided to pursue the Russians, and took his army, as on the previous day, back across the Drissa to the right bank; but in order to give General Albert's infantry brigade and the 23rd Chasseurs an opportunity to recover from the effects of the fighting, he left them to keep watch on the field of battle at Sivotschina. I took advantage of this period of rest to carry out a ceremony rarely seen in war. This was to pay my last respects to those of our brave comrades who had lost their lives. They were laid, arranged by rank, in a large pit, with Captain Courteau and his lieutenant at their head. Then the fourteen canons, so gallantly captured by the 23rd, were placed before this military tomb.

Having completed this act of piety, I wished to dress my wound of the previous day, which was causing me a great deal of pain, and to do this I went to sit apart under a huge pine tree. There I saw a young battalion commander, who with his back against the trunk and held up by two Grenadiers, was painfully closing a little package on which a name was traced in his blood. This officer, who belonged to Albert's brigade, had suffered, during the attack on the Russian camp, an appalling bayonet wound which had slit open his abdomen from which the intestines were protruding, pierced in several places. Although some dressing had been applied the blood still flowed and the wound was mortal. The doomed man, who was well aware of this, had wished, before he died, to take leave of a lady whom he loved but did not know to whom he might entrust this precious message, when chance brought me there. We knew each other only by sight, but nonetheless, urged by the approach of death, he asked me, in a voice now faint, to do him two favours, then motioning the Grenadiers to one side he gave me the package, and saying, with tears in his eyes, "It is a portrait," he made me promise to deliver it secretly, with my own hands, if I was fortunate enough to return one day to Paris. "In any case" he added "there is no hurry, for it would be better if this was received long after I am gone". I promised to carry out this sad task which I was unable to do until two years later in 1814. The second request which he made I was able to carry out within some two hours. He was distressed to think that his body would be devoured by the wolves which abounded in the country and asked to be put beside the captain and the troopers of the 23rd, whose burial he had seen. This I promised, and when he died, not long after our unhappy meeting, I carried out this last wish.

Chap. 10.

Deeply moved by this unhappy event,I was meditating with much sadness, when I was awakened from my reveries by the distant sound of a sustained cannonade. The two armies were once more in action. Marshal Oudinot, after passing the inn at Kliastitsoui where I had been wounded the day before, had contacted the Russian rear-guard at the beginning of the marsh, the exit from which had been so disastrous for us on the previous day. He was determined to drive the enemy back, but they were not prepared to pass through this dangerous defile, and mounted a counter-offensive against the French troops who after suffering considerable losses retreated, followed by the Russians. One might have thought that Oudinot and Wittgenstein were playing a game of prisoner's base, advancing and retreating by turn. The news of this fresh retreat by Oudinot was given to us on the battlefield of Sivotschina by an aide-de-camp, who brought to General Albert the order to take his brigade together with the 23rd Chasseurs, two leagues to the rear, in the direction of Polotsk.

When it came to leaving, I was unwilling to part with the fourteen artillery pieces captured that morning by my regiment, and as the horses which pulled them had also fallen into our hands, they were harnessed up and we took the guns to our next bivouac, and on the night following to Polotsk, where it was not long before they played an effective part in the defence of that town.

Oudinot withdrew that same day to the ford at Sivotschina, which he had crossed in the morning in pursuit of Wittgenstein who bearing in mind the disaster which had overwhelmed his advance-guard at this place on the occasion, did not risk sending any isolated unit across to the bank which we occupied. So the two armies, separated by the Drissa, settled themselves for the night.

On the following day, the 2nd August, Oudinot having joined his units at Polotsk, hostilities ceased for a few days, as both sides were in need of a rest. We were rejoined by the good General Castex and also by the 24th Chasseurs, who were very angry with their Colonel for leading them away when it was their turn to attack the Russian camp. On their trip up the Drissa they had seen no sign of the enemy nor had they found any trace of the supposed ford.

After several days rest Wittgenstein led part of his troops towards the lower Dvina, from where Macdonald was threatening his right. When Marshal Oudinot followed the Russian army in that direction it turned to face him, and for a week or ten days there was a series of marches and countermarches, and several minor engagements which it would be too long and wearisome to describe, and which resulted only in the useless killing of men and the demonstration of the indecision of both commanders.

The most serious engagement during this short period took place on the 13th August near the magnificent monastery of Valensoui, built on the bank of the Svolna. This little river which has very muddy banks separated the French and the Russians, and it was obvious that whichever general attempted to force a crossing on such unfavourable terrain would come to grief. Neither Oudinot nor Wittgenstein had any intention of crossing the Svolna at this point; but instead of going to look for some other place where they could meet in combat, they took up positions on either side of this watercourse, as it were in mutual despite. Soon there was from both banks a lively cannonade which was totally useless as the troops on neither side could attack their adversaries and was no credit to either party.

However Wittgenstein, to protect the lives of his men, had restricted himself to posting some battalions of unmounted Chasseurs among the willows and reeds which bordered the stream, and had kept the bulk of his force out of the range of the French guns, whose brisk fire hit only some of his sharpshooters, while Oudinot, who had insisted, in spite of the sensible advice of several generals, on bringing his first line up to the Svolna suffered losses which he could have and should have avoided. The Russian artillery is nowhere as good as ours, but they used pieces called licornes, which had a range exceeding that of the French guns of the period, and it was these licornes which did the most damage among our troops.

Marshal Oudinot, in his belief that the enemy were going to cross the river, not only kept a division of infantry in position to repel them, but supported them with General Castex's cavalry, an unnecessary precaution, since a crossing of even a small river takes more time than is needed for the defenders to hurry into a position to oppose it. Nonetheless my regiment was exposed for twenty-four hours to the Russian fire, which killed or wounded several of my men.

During this confrontation in which the troops remained stationary for a long period, there arrived the aide-de-camp whom Oudinet had sent to Witepsk to report to the Emperor the result of the battles at Kliastitsoui and at Sivotschina. Napoleon who wanted to make it clear to the troops that he did not blame them for the lack of success in our operations, loaded 2nd Corps with rewards in the way of decorations and promotions, and then, turning to the cavalry, he awarded four Crosses of the Legion of Honour to each of the cavalry regiments. In the despatch announcing this news, Major-general the Prince Berthier added that in order to show his satisfaction with the conduct of the 23rd Chasseurs at Wilkomir, the bridge of Dvinaburg, the night battle at Drouia, Kliastitsoui and above all in the attack on the Russian camp at Sivotschina, the Emperor was awarding them, in addition to the four decorations given to the other regiments, fourteen decorations, one for each of the guns captured by them from Koulnieff's advance-guard, so that I had now eighteen crosses to distribute among my brave soldiers. The aide-de-camp had not brought the awards themselves, but the Major-general had added to his letter the request that the regimental commanders should draw up a list of recipients and forward it to him.

I assembled all the captains, and after taking their advice, I drew up my list, and presented it to Marshal Oudinot, asking at the same time if I might be allowed to announce the awards immediately to my regiment: "What, here, under fire?" "Yes, marshal, under fire. That enhances their value."

General Lorencez, who as chief of staff had written the report of the various actions, in which he had highly praised the 23rd, agreed with my suggestion and so the Marshal consented. The decorations would not arrive until later, but I had my servant look in my baggage for a piece of ribbon which I had in my portmanteau, and when it was found, and after it had been cut into eighteen pieces, I announced to the regiment the awards which the Emperor had presented, and calling out of the ranks each of the recipients in turn, I gave them a piece of the red ribbon, then so keenly wished for and so proudly worn, and which has since then been so diminished in value, almost prostituted, by handing it out indiscriminately to all and sundry.

This ceremony, conducted in the field and under fire, had a great effect, and the enthusiasm of the regiment was at its height when I announced the name of Sergeant Prud'homme, reputed justly to be the most intrepid and unassuming of the warriors of the 23rd. This brave survivor of many a fierce encounter, accepted with modesty his piece of ribbon, to the sound of loud acclamation from all the squadrons. A moment of well earned triumph. I shall never forget this moving scene which took place, as you know, within range of the enemy guns.

Sadly, there is no rose without its thorn. Two of the men who were included in my list had just been severely wounded. Sergeant Legendre, who had killed General Koulnieff, had an arm carried away, and Corporal Griffon had a leg smashed. The injured limbs were being amputated when I went to the dressing station to give them their decorations. At the sight of the ribbons they forgot for a moment their pain, but unhappily, Sergeant Legendre did not long survive his injury, though Griffon recovered and was sent back to France, where I saw him some years later in Les Invalides.

The 24th Chasseurs, who received only four decorations as opposed to the eighteen awarded to the 23rd, conceded that this was fair, but nevertheless they regretted that they had been deprived of the honour of taking the fourteen Russian guns at Sivotschina, even at the cost of suffering such casualties as ours, "We are soldiers" they said, "and must take our chances for better or worse." They blamed their colonel for providing them with what they called this let-out. Here was an army whose men actually clamoured for action.

You will doubtless wonder what I got out of all this, and the answer is nothing. The Emperor, before he removed Colonel de La Nougarde from the command of the regiment and either made him a general or head of a legion of gendarmes, wanted to know if his health would permit him to carry out the duties of either of these two ranks. As a consequence Marshal Oudinot was ordered to bring Colonel de La Nougarde before a medical board, whose conclusion was that he would never be able to mount a horse. In view of this, the Marshal authorised the Colonel's return to France, where he was given the command of a minor fortress. The unfortunate Colonel, before leaving Polotsk, where his infirmities had forced him to remain, wrote me a very touching letter in which he took his leave of the 23rd, and although he had never led the regiment into action, an event which increases the men's regard for their commander, his departure was justifiably regretted.

The regiment now being without a colonel, the Marshal expected to receive at any moment the order for my promotion to that rank, and quite frankly so did I. The Emperor had however moved away, and had left Witepsk to take Smolensk and from there to march on Moscow, and the work of his cabinet had been slowed by their preoccupation with military operations to such an extent that I was not gazetted Colonel until three months later.

Let us now return to the banks of the Svolna, which the French left hurriedly, after depositing some of their wounded in the monastery of Valensoui. Amongst those whom we lost was M. Casabianca, Colonel of the 11th light infantry regiment, who had served with me as aide-de-camp to Massna. He was a very fine officer whose promotion had been rapid; but his career was ended by a head injury received when he was visiting some of his men on the bank of the Svolna. He was dying when I saw him on a stretcher carried by some sappers. He recognised me and shaking my hand he observed that he was sorry to see our army corps so poorly managed. The poor fellow died that evening.

His last words were only too well founded, for our leader seemed to proceed without method or plan. After a success, he pursued Wittgenstein regardless of any obstacles and spoke of nothing less than driving him back as far as St.Petersburg, but at the least check he retreated swiftly and started seeing enemies everywhere. It was in this last state that he took his troops back to Polotsk, although they were displeased at being made to fall back before the Russians whom they had recently defeated in almost every encounter.

On the 15th of August, the Emperor's birthday, 2nd Corps arrived dejectedly at Polotsk, where we met with 6th Corps, formed of the two fine Bavarian divisions of General Wrde, which had a French general, Gouvion Saint-Cyr in overall command. The Emperor had sent this reinforcement of 8 to 10,000 men to Marshal Oudinot, who would have received it with more pleasure if he had not been afraid of the man in command.

Saint-Cyr was one of the most competent soldiers in Europe. A contemporary and rival of Moreau, Hoche, Kleber and Desaix, he had successfully commanded one wing of the French army of the Rhine at a time when Oudinot was scarcely a colonel or a brigade commander. I do not know anyone who could command troops in the field better than Saint-Cyr.

The son of a small landowner in Toul, he had studied to be a civil engineer, but he gave this up to become an actor in Paris, where he created the well-known role of "Robert,the Brigand Chief" In the City Theatre, where he was when the revolution of '89 broke out. Saint-Cyr joined a volunteer battalion, where he showed great courage and military talent. He soon became a divisional general and gained a number of victories. He was a tall man but looked more like a schoolmaster than a soldier, due in part perhaps to the habit adopted by the generals of the army of the Rhine of wearing neither uniform nor epaulets, but only a plain blue greatcoat.

One could not imagine anyone more self-controlled. The greatest dangers, setbacks, successes, or defeats, failed to rouse him to any show of emotion. He maintained an icy calm in all situations. It is obvious how useful such a temperament coupled with a taste for study and meditation, might be to a general officer, but Saint-Cyr had also some serious faults. Jealous of his comrades, he had been known to hold his troops back while, close to him, other divisions were decimated in a desperate struggle. He would then advance and profiting from the exhaustion of the enemy he would overcome them, and thus appear to have won the victory single-handed. Secondly, if Saint-Cyr was one of the best officers in the employment of troops in the field, he was without doubt the one who took the least interest in their welfare. He never inquired if the men had food, clothing or footwear, or if their arms were in proper repair. He never held an inspection, nor visited the hospitals, nor even asked if there were any. In his opinion it was the duty of the colonels to see to all that. In short he wanted to be presented on the field of battle with regiments in fighting order, without troubling himself to see that they were kept in that condition. This sort of behaviour had not done Saint-Cyr any good. Wherever he served the soldiers, although acknowledging his military talents, regarded him without affection. His fellow officers dreaded working with him and the various governments which had taken power in France had employed him only out of necessity. The Emperor did the same, but he so much disliked Saint-Cyr that when he created the rank of marshal he left his name off the list of promotions, even though he had seen more service and shown more skill than most of those to whom Napoleon awarded the baton. Such was the man whom the Emperor had just placed under Oudinet's orders, to the great regret of the latter, who feared that he would be shown up by comparison with Saint-Cyr's superior talents.

On the 16th of August, the day on which my eldest son Alfred was born, the Russian army of some sixty thousand men attacked Oudinot, who, including the Bavarian unit led by Saint-Cyr, had fifty two thousand men under his command. In any other circumstances an engagement between one hundred and twelve thousand men would have been called a battle; but in 1812 the when the total number of combatants amounted to some six or seven hundred thousand, a fight involving one hundred thousand men was no more than an action, and it is this description which is given to the struggle at Polotsk between the Russian troops and those of Marshal Oudinot.

The town of Polotsk, built on the right bank of the Dvina, is surrounded by old earthen ramparts. Before the main frontage of the town the fields are divided by a large number of little ditches between which vegetables are grown. Although these obstacles are not impassable for artillery and cavalry, they hinder their movement. These gardens extend for less than half a league in front of the town, but on their left, on the bank of the Divna there is a large area of level ground. It is here that the Russian general should have attacked Polotsk, for it would have given him command of the frail and only pontoon bridge, which was our communication with the left bank from which we drew our ammunition and food supply. But Wittgenstein chose to make a frontal attack and directed his main force towards the gardens from where he hoped to scale the ramparts which, to tell the truth, were no more than easily climbed embankments, whose height, however, allowed them to dominate the ground in front of them. The attack was pressed home vigourously, but our infantry put up a stout defence among the gardens, while from the height of the ramparts the guns, among which were the fourteen captured by the 23rd at Sivotschina, ravaged the enemy ranks. The Russians fell back in disorder to reform themselves on the plain. Oudinot, instead of staying sensibly where he was, went after them and was in turn driven off with casualties. The greater part of the day was spent in this way, the Russians returning repeatedly to the attack, only to be driven back beyond the gardens by the French.

During these blood-stained comings and goings, what was General Saint-Cyr doing? He was following Oudinot about in silence, and when asked for his opinion he merely bowed and said "Monseigneur le Marachal" as if meaning since you have been made marshal, you must know more than me, a simple general. So you can sort this out for yourself.

Wittgenstein, having lost a great many men and despairing of gaining victory by continued attacks in the area of the gardens, ended up where he should have begun, by marching his troops towards the meadows which bordered the Dvina. Up until this time Oudinot had kept his twelve pounders and all his cavalry at this spot, as if they had nothing to do with the fighting; but the artillery general, Dulauloy, anxious about his guns, suggested to the Marshal that he should send not only the large calibre guns but also all the cavalry over to the left bank, on the pretext that they got in the way of the infantry. When Oudinot asked Saint-Cyr what he thought, instead of offering the sound advice that the artillery and the cavalry should stay where they were, on ground which allowed them to manoeuvre with ease and support the infantry, he only repeated his endless "Monseigneur le Marachal". In the end, Oudinot, in spite of the opinion of General Lorencez, his chief-of-staff, ordered the artillery and the cavalry to withdraw to the other side of the river. This ill-advised movement which looked like the prelude to a retreat and the total abandonment of Polotsk and the right bank, greatly displeased the troops who were involved, and lowered the morale of the infantry whose job it was to defend that part of the town which faced the open ground. The spirits of the Russians were, on the contrary, raised when they saw ten regiments of cavalry and several batteries of guns leaving the field of battle. In an effort to create confusion in this huge mass as it departed they brought forward and fired their licornes, the hollow ammunition of which acts first as a cannon-ball and then explodes like a mortar bomb. The regiments next to mine had several men killed or wounded. I was lucky enough to have none of my men hit though I lost some horses. My own horse was hit in the head and as it fell I went down with it and my injured shoulder struck hard on the ground, which was very painful. If the Russian gun had been elevated a bit more, it would have been I who was hit, fair and square, and my son would have been an orphan a few hours after first seeing the light of day.

The enemy now resumed their attack, and when, after crossing the bridge, we looked back to see what was happening on the bank which we had just left, we saw a disturbing spectacle. The French, Bavarian and Croatian infantry were fighting bravely and holding their own, but the Portuguese legion and the two Swiss regiments fled before the Russians, and did not stop until, having been driven into the river, they were in the water up to their knees. Then, forced to face the enemy or drown, they at last struck back, and by a constant barrage of fire they compelled the Russians to draw back a little. The commander of the French artillery, who had just crossed the Dvina with the cavalry, skillfully made use of the opportunity to be useful by bringing his guns to the river bank and directing a heavy fire across the stream at the enemy battalions drawn up on the opposite bank.

This powerful intervention having stopped Wittgenstein's men at this point, while the French, Bavarians and Croats drove them back elsewhere, the fighting eased up and an hour before the end of the day had degenerated into random firing. The Marshal, however could not escape the fact that he would have to continue fighting the next day; and so, preoccupied by a situation the outcome of which he could not predict, and ruffled by the obstinate silence of Saint-Cyr, he was walking his horse slowly, followed by only one aide-de-camp, among musketeers of his infantry, when enemy marksmen, seeing a rider with a plumed hat, took aim and put a ball through his arm.

The Marshal at once informed Saint-Cyr of the injury and handing to him the command of the army left him to sort matters out. He himself left the field, crossed the bridge, stopped for a few moments at the cavalry bivouac and quitting the army went to Lithuania in our rear, to have his wound cared for. We did not see him again for two months.

Chap. 11.

Saint-Cyr took up with a firm and skillful hand the reins of command, and in a few hours completely changed the look of things. Such is the influence of a man who is competent and who inspires confidence. Marshal Oudinot had left the army in a perilous state: part of his force driven back to the edge of the river, and the rest scattered amongst the gardens where they were firing at random: an inadequate lay-out of guns on the ramparts: the streets of the town cluttered with wagons, baggage, sutlers and wounded, all in complete confusion, while the troops had no means of retreat, should they be overcome, other than the pontoon bridge across the Dvina, a bridge which was very narrow and in such a bad state that the water was six inches over the planking of its platform. Finally, night was approaching and it was feared that the shooting would lead to a general action which might be disastrous in view of the disorder which ruled amongst the regiments of different nationalities.

General Saint-Cyr's first act was to order the withdrawal of those infantrymen who were in action, in the certainty that the tired enemy would do the same, as soon as they were no longer under attack.

The result was that soon the firing ceased on both sides. The troops were able to re-form and to have some rest, and further fighting was postponed until the next day. In order to put himself in a more favourable position, Saint-Cyr used the night to make preparations for the repulse of the enemy and to ensure a line of retreat, should it be necessary. With this aim, he gathered together all the corps commanders and after making clear to them the dangers of the situation, one of the more serious of which was the obstruction of the streets of the town and the approaches to the bridge, he ordered that the colonels, accompanied by several officers and with patrols, should go through the streets, sending those men of their regiments who were fit to their bivouac area, and all the wounded, sick, led horses, sutlers and carts to the other side of the bridge. General Saint-Cyr added that he would visit the town at daybreak and would suspend from duty any corps commander who had not carried out his instructions promptly. No excuse would be accepted. There was a rush to obey. The sick and wounded were carried to the left bank as well as everything which was not actually required for combat. That is to say all the impedimenta of the army. In this way the streets and the bridge were soon completely clear. The bridge was strengthened and the cavalry and guns brought back to the right bank and located in a suburb furthest from the enemy; and then, to improve his means of retreat, the prudent general had a second bridge made out of empty barrels and planks, which was for the sole use of the infantry. All these preparations having been completed before daylight, the army awaited its enemies with confidence. The latter, however, did not stir from their encampment on the open ground at the edge of the vast forest which surrounds Polotsk on the side opposite to the river.

General Saint-Cyr, who had expected to be attacked in the early morning, attributed the tranquillity which reigned in the Russian camp to the tremendous losses they had suffered the previous day. This may have been part of the reason, but the main cause of Wittgenstein's inactivity was that he expected the arrival, during the coming night, of a strong division of infantry and several squadrons of cavalry from St. Petersburg, and he had delayed his attack until he had received this powerful reinforcement so that he might the more easily defeat us on the day following.

Although the Polish nobles, the great landowners of the property round Polotsk, did not dare to support us openly, they did so in secret, and had no difficulty in providing us with spies. General Saint-Cyr, uneasy at what was going on in the Russian camp, arranged with one of these noblemen to have him send there one of his more enlightened vassals. The landowner sent to the Russian camp several cartloads of forage, and put amongst his carters his bailiff, dressed as a peasant. This man, who was highly intelligent, learned by chatting to Wittgenstein's soldiers that they were expecting a large body of troops. He even witnessed the arrival of some Cossacks and some cavalry, and was told that several battalions would arrive at the camp around midnight. Having gathered this information, the bailiff passed it to his master, who hurried to warn the commander of the French forces.

When he heard this news, Saint-Cyr determined to strike at Wittgenstein before the arrival of the expected reinforcements. But as he did not want to be involved in a long drawn-out affair, he warned his generals and corps commanders that he would not attack until six in the evening, so that, as night would put an end to the fighting, the Russians would be unable to exploit their success if things went their way. It is true that if we were victorious we would be unable to pursue the enemy in the dark, but Saint-Cyr had no intention of doing this, and for the moment wanted only to teach the Russians a lesson which would drive them away from Polotsk. As the French general aimed at taking the Russians by surprise, he ordered absolute calm to be maintained in the town and above all in the lines of outposts.

The day seemed very long. Everyone, even the General, in spite of his sang-froid, constantly looked at his watch. Having observed that, on the previous day, the absence of the French cavalry had allowed the Russians to drive our left wing almost into the Dvina, General Saint-Cyr, shortly before the attack, moved all his squadrons silently into a position behind some big buildings, on the other side of which lay the meadowland. It was on this level ground that the cavalry could manoeuvre to fall on the enemy right and give cover to the left wing of our infantry, of which the first two divisions were to attack the Russian camp while the third supported the cavalry and the remaining two formed the reserve and protected the town. All was ready when at last it was six o'clock, and the signal for the attack was given by the firing of a cannon, followed by a volley from all the French artillery which landed numerous projectiles on the enemy outposts and on the camp itself. At once our two first infantry divisions, led by the 23rd Light, fell on the Russian regiments positioned in the gardens, killing or capturing all whom they encountered and chasing the rest back to the camp, where they took many prisoners and captured several guns. This surprise attack, although carried out in broad daylight, was so successful that Wittgenstein was dining peacefully in a little country house near his camp when he was warned that French skirmishers were in the court-yard. He jumped out of a window and mounting a Cossack horse which happened to be there he galloped away to join his troops. Our skirmishers took some fine horses, documents, baggage wagons and wines belonging to the General also the silverware and some of the dinner laid on the table. An immense quantity of booty was seized in the camp by other units.

At the sound of this wholly unforeseen attack by the French, panic spread amongst our enemies, the majority of whom took to their heels without even picking up their weapons. The disorder was complete. No one was giving orders, even though the approach of our infantry was heralded by a fusillade of shots and the sound of the drums beating the charge. The scene seemed set for a resounding victory by the French troops, at whose head marched Saint-Cyr with his customary calm. However, in war an unexpected and often unimportant event can change a situation.

A large number of the enemy soldiers had reached in their flight the rear area of the camp, where was encamped the squadron of horse-guards which had arrived a few hours previously. This lite unit was made up of young men selected from the best of the nobility, and was led by a Major of proven courage, whose lan, it was said, was increased by generous draughts of liquor. When he saw what was happening, this officer leapt on his horse and followed by some hundred and twenty cuirassed riders, he rushed towards the French, whom he soon encountered. The first of our battalions which he attacked belonged to the 26th Light. They put up a vigourous resistance. The cavalry were repelled with casualties, and were rallying to prepare for a second charge when their Major, impatient at the time taken for the scattered horsemen to regain their ranks, abandoned the unsuccessful attack on the French battalion, and ordering his men to follow he led them at the gallop in open order through the camp, which was full of infantry, Portuguese, Swiss and even Bavarians, our allies, some of whom, dispersed by the victory itself, were trying to regroup while others were collecting the booty left by the Russians.

The cavalrymen killed or wounded many of these soldiers and threw the crowd into disarray. A disorderly withdrawal began which degenerated into a mass panic. Now, in a situation like this, soldiers can mistake for the enemy their own troops who are running to join them, so that, in a cloud of dust, it seems that they are being attacked by a large force, when in most cases it is only a handful of men. This is what happened here. The horse-guards, scattered widely over the plain and pressing on without a backward look, seemed to the fugitives to be a massive force of cavalry, and so the confusion grew until it enveloped the Swiss battalion in the middle of which General Saint-Cyr had taken refuge. He was so much jostled by the mob that his horse fell into a ditch.

The General, who was clad in a simple blue greatcoat, without any badges of rank, lay motionless on the ground as the cavalry drew near, and they thinking he was either dead or only a humble civilian employee, passed by and continued their pursuit of the fugitives. One does not know how matters would have ended had not the gallant and quick-witted General Berckheim, at the head of the 4th Cuirassiers, charged down upon the Russian cavalry, who in spite of bravely defending themselves, were almost all killed or made prisoner. Their valiant Major was among the dead. The charge carried out by this handful of men could have had a dramatic result if it had been followed up, and this fine feat of arms goes to show once more that it is unexpected attacks by cavalry that have the best chance of success.

General Saint-Cyr, having been picked up by our Cuirassiers, ordered all the infantry divisions to advance immediately and attack the Russians before they could recover from their confusion. In this they were successful and the enemy were decisively beaten, losing many men and a number of guns.

While this infantry battle was taking place before Polotsk, another action was under way on their left, in the open plain which bordered the Dvina. As soon as the cannon shot gave the signal to engage, our cavalry regiments, led by Castex's brigade, advanced rapidly towards the enemy who, for their part, advanced towards us.

A major encounter seemed imminent, and the good General Castex said that although in spite of my recent injury, I had been able to command the regiment during the fighting round Sivotschina and Svolna, where it had been solely a matter of facing the fire of the infantry and the guns, it would not be the same today when in action against cavalry. During a charge I would be unable to defend myself since, with my one arm, I could not hold my horse's bridle and at the same time use my sabre. He therefore urged me to remain behind on this occasion, with the reserve division of infantry. I did not think that I should accept this well-meaning advice, and I expressed so vehemently my wish not to be removed from the regiment that the General gave way, but he arranged for me to have behind me six of the best cavalrymen, led by Sergeant Prud'homme, while at my side were four warrant officers, a trumpeter and my orderly Fousse, one of the finest soldiers in the regiment. Surrounded in this way, and placed in front of the centre of a squadron, I was sufficiently protected; besides, in an emergency, I would have dropped the reins to wield my sabre, which hung by its sword-knot from my right wrist.

The meadow was large enough to hold two regiments in battle order, so the 23rd and the 24th advanced in line. General Corbineau's brigade, consisting of three regiments was in the second line and the Cuirassiers followed, in reserve. The 24th, which was on my left, faced a body of Russian dragoons, while I was opposed to the Cossacks of the Guard, recognisable by the red colour of their jackets and the fine quality of their horses which although they had arrived only a few hours ago did not appear in the least tired. We moved forward at the gallop, and when we were at a suitable distance from the enemy, General Castex ordered the charge and his whole brigade fell in one line on the Russians. By the violence of this attack, the 24th overwhelmed the dragoons who opposed them, but my regiment experienced more resistance from the Cossacks, a chosen band of men of superior stature, each armed with a 14 foot lance which he well knew how to use. Some of my Chasseurs were killed and many wounded, but once my gallant troopers had broken through this line bristling with steel they had the advantage, for the long lances are ineffective against cavalry when those carrying them are disorganised and closely engaged by adversaries who are armed with sabres which they can use with ease, while the lancers have great difficulty in presenting the point of their weapons. Thus the Cossacks were forced to turn their backs, whereupon my men slaughtered many of them and captured a large number of splendid horses.

We were about to follow up this success when our attention was drawn to a great tumult on our right, where we saw the plain covered with fugitives, for this was the moment when the Russian Chevalier- Gardes made their desperate attack. General Castex, thinking it would be unwise to advance any further when our centre appeared to be retreating in disorder, called for the rally to be sounded and the brigade came to a halt.

We had,however, scarcely re-formed our ranks when the Cossacks, emboldened by what was going on in the centre and burning to avenge their previous defeat, charged back on the attack and hurled themselves furiously on my squadrons, while the Grodno Hussars attacked the 24th. The Russians, driven back at every point by Castex's brigade, brought up successively their second and third line, whereupon Corbineau came to our assistance with the 7th and 20th Chasseurs and the 8th Lancers, and there ensued a great cavalry battle, the outcome of which hung in the balance. Both our own and the Russian Cuirassiers were advancing to join in when Wittgenstein, seeing his infantry beaten and hard pressed by ours, sent word to his cavalry to retire. They, however, were too hotly engaged for this command to be easily executed. In the event, Generals Castex and Corbineau, knowing that they would be supported by the Cuirassiers who were close behind them, committed in turn both their brigades against the Russians who were thrown into the greatest disorder and suffered heavy casualties.

On arriving at the other side of the wood where our victorious infantry and cavalry divisions were regrouping, General Saint-Cyr, seeing that night was approaching, called off the pursuit, and the troops returned to their bivouacs at Polotsk, which they had quitted a few hours earlier. During the fighting my wound had given me much pain, particularly when I had to gallop my horse. My inability to defend myself often put me in a difficult situation in which I might not have survived had I not been surrounded by a group of stalwarts who never let me out of their sight.

On one occasion, amongst others, I was pushed by the mob of combatants into a group of Cossacks, where to save myself I had to let go of the bridle and take up my sabre. I had, however, no need to use it, for seeing their commanding officer in danger all ranks of my escort furiously attacked the Cossacks who were now surrounding me, laid several of them in the dust and put the rest to flight. My orderly Fousse, the finest of Chasseurs, killed three of them and Warrent-Officer Joly two. So I came back safe and sound from this action, in which I had been determined to take part in order to encourage the regiment, and to show them afresh that as long as I could mount a horse it would be my honour to lead them when danger threatened. Both the officers and men of the regiment appreciated this, and the affection with which I was already regarded by them was increased, as you will see later, when I speak of the misfortunes of the great retreat.

Combat between cavalry units is infinitely less murderous than that involving the infantry, also the Russians are as a rule maladroit in the handling of their weapons, and their incompetent leaders do not always know how to employ their cavalry to best advantage. So that although my regiment was fighting the Cossacks of the Guard, considered one of the finest units in the Russian army, we did not suffer a great many casualties. I had eight or nine men killed and some thirty wounded; but amongst those last was Major Fontaine. This very fine officer was in the thick of the fighting when his horse was killed. His feet were entangled in the stirrups and he was trying to free himself with the help of some Chasseurs who had gone to help him when a Cossack officer, bursting through the group at the gallop, leaned dexterously from his saddle and dealt Fontaine a terrible sabre slash which blinded his left eye, damaged the other and split open his nose. However, as the Russian officer, proud of this exploit, was leaving the scene, one of our Chasseurs shot him in the back at six paces, so avenging his squadron commander. As soon as possible M.Fontaine's injury was dressed and he was taken to Polotsk to the Jesuit monastery, where I visited him that same evening. I admired the resignation with which this courageous soldier bore the pain and disability of becoming almost completely blind, since which time he has not been able to continue in active service. This was a great loss for the 23rd, in which he had been since its creation, liked and respected by all; I was much moved by his misfortune.

I was now the only senior officer in the regiment and I had to see to all the requirements of the service, which was a major task.

You may think that I have gone into too much detail about the various actions in which 2nd Corps was involved, but as I have said, I enjoy recalling the great conflicts in which I have taken part, and speak of these times with pleasure, for it then seems to me that I am once more in the field, surrounded by my brave companions, almost all of whom have now, alas, quitted this life.

To return to the present campaign: anyone but Saint-Cyr, after such a hard-fought action would have reviewed his troops to congratulate them on their success and enquire into their needs. Scarcely, however, had the last shot been fired, when Saint-Cyr shut himself up in the Jesuit monastery and spent all his days and part of the night playing his violin...a ruling passion from which only marching to attack the enemy could distract him. Generals Lorencez and Wrde, given the task of deploying the troops, sent two divisions of infantry and the Cuirassiers to the left bank of the Dvina. The third French division and the Bavarians stayed in Polotsk, where they were employed to build the fortifications of a vast entrenched camp, before acting as a support to the troops which from this important point were covering the left and rear of the "Grande Armee" on its march to Smolensk and on to Moscow. The light cavalry brigades of Castex and Corbineau were positioned two leagues in front of this camp, on the left bank of the Polota, a little river which joins the Dvina at Polotsk. My regiment went into bivouac near a village called Louchonski. The colonel of the 24th set up his a quarter of a league to the rear, covered by the 23rd. We stayed there for two months, during the first of which we did not go very far. When he heard of the victory won at Polotsk by Saint-Cyr, the Emperor sent him the baton o Imperial Marshalf. Instead of using the occasion to visit his troops, the new Marshal retired into even deeper seclusion, if that were possible. No one could approach the head of the army, which earned him the nick-name amongst the soldiers of the "Owl". More than this, although the huge monastery had more than a hundred rooms which would have been most useful for the wounded, he lived there alone, and considered it a great concession that he allowed senior officers who were wounded to be received in the outhouses. They were allowed to remain there for forty-eight hours, after which their comrades had to take them to the town. The cellars and granaries of the monastery were bursting with provisions amassed by the Jesuits; wine, beer oil, flour, etc. All were there in abundance; but the Marshal had taken charge of the keys of the store-rooms and nothing came from them, even for the hospitals. It was with the greatest difficulty that I obtained two bottles of wine for the injured Fontaine. The extraordinary thing was that the Marshal used hardly any of these provisions for himself, for he was a man of extreme sobriety, if also highly eccentric. The army complained loudly about his behaviour, and those same provisions which he refused to distribute to his troops were, two months later, consumed by flames and the Russians, when the French were forced to abandon the burning monastery and town.

Chap. 12.

While all this was going on at Polotsk and on the banks of the Drissa, the Emperor remained at Witepsk, from where he exercised overall control of the operations of the numerous units of the army. There are those who have reproached Napoleon with wasting too much time, first at Wilna, where he stayed for nineteen days, and then at Witepsk where he stayed for seventeen. They claim that these thirty-six days could have been better employed, particularly in a country where the summer is very short, and the rigours of winter begin to be felt about the end of September. This claim has some justice up to a point, but it should be remembered, firstly that the Emperor hoped that the Russians would request some compromise and, in the second place that it was necessary to concentrate once more all the units which had been scattered in the pursuit of Bagration. In addition it was essential to give some rest to the troops who, as well as their regular marches had to scour the countryside each evening, far from their bivouacs, in a search for food; because the Russians having burned all the stores as they retreated, it was impossible to make any daily distribution of rations. There was, however, for a long time a happy exception to this state of affairs, in the case of Davout's Corps. Davout was as good an administrator as he was a fighting soldier, and well before the crossing of the Nieman he had organised an immense convoy of little carts which followed his army. These carts carried biscuits, salted meat and vegetables and were drawn by oxen, a number of which could be slaughtered daily to provide food. This arrangement contributed greatly to keeping his men from straying from their ranks.

The Emperor left Witepsk on the 13th August, and moving further and further away from 2nd and 6th Corps, which he left at Polotsk under the command of Saint-Cyr, he went to Krasnoe, where a part of the Grande Arme faced the enemy. It was hoped that there would be a battle, but all that took place was a minor action against the Russian rear-guard, which was defeated and promptly withdrew. On the 15th of August, his birthday, the Emperor reviewed his troops, who welcomed him with enthusiasm. On the 16th the army reached Smolensk, a fortified town which the Russians call the holy of holies because they consider it to be the key to Moscow and the palladium of their empire. Ancient prophecies foretold disaster to Russia the day Smolensk was taken. This superstition, carefully nurtured by the government, dates from the time when Smolensk, situated on the Dnieper, was the furthest Muscovite frontier, from where they issued to make enormous conquests.

Murat and Ney, who were the first two to arrive before Smolensk, both thought, for some unknown reason, that the Russians had abandoned the place. The reports given to the Emperor having convinced him that this was the case, he ordered that the advance-guard should be sent into the town. The impatient Ney was waiting only for this command, he advanced toward the town gate escorted by a small body of Hussars, but suddenly a regiment of Cossacks, hidden by a fold in the ground covered by scrub, fell on our riders, drew them off and surrounded Marshal Ney, who was so hard pressed that a pistol shot fired at point blank range tore the collar of his coat. Fortunately the Domanget brigade hurried to the spot and freed the Marshal. The arrival of General Razout's infantry enabled Ney to get close enough to the town to convince himself that the Russians intended to defend it.

Seeing the ramparts armed with a great number of cannon, the artillery general, bl, a highly competent officer, advised the Emperor to by-pass the place by sending the Polish Corps commanded by Prince Poniatowski to cross the Dnieper two leagues further upstream; but Napoleon, accepting the advice of Ney, who assured him that Smolensk would be easily captured, gave the order to attack. Three army Corps, those of Davout, Ney and Poniatowski, launched an assault on the town from different directions. A murderous fire was poured down on them from the ramparts, and one even more deadly came from the batteries which the Russians had established on the opposite bank of the river. A most bloody struggle ensued; bullets, grape-shot and bombs decimated our troops, without the artillery being able to breach the walls. At last, as night was approaching, the enemy, who had bravely disputed every foot of ground, were driven back into the town itself, which they now prepared to abandon. Before they did so, however, they set all of it on fire. The Emperor thus saw an end to his hopes of capturing a town which was rightly supposed to be full of supplies. It was not until dawn the next day that the French entered the place, the streets of which were strewn with the dead bodies of Russians and smoking debris. The taking of Smolensk had cost us 12,000 men killed or wounded, an enormous loss which could have been avoided by crossing the Dnieper upstream, as had been proposed by General bl; for, seeing himself at risk of being cut off, General Barclay de Tolly, the enemy commander, would have evacuated the place and retired towards Moscow.

The Russians, after burning the bridge, halted for a short time on the heights of the right bank and then resumed their retreat on the road to Moscow. Marshal Ney followed them with his army corps, reinforced by Gudin's division which was detached from Davout's corps .

Not far from Smolensk, Marshal Ney caught up with the Russians as they passed, with all their baggage, through a narrow defile. A major engagement took place which could have been disasterous for the enemy if General Junot, who commanded 8th Corps and who had been slow in crossing the Dnieper two leagues above Smolensk, and who had then halted for forty-eight hours, had hastened to the sound of Ney's guns, which were no more than a league away. Although informed of the situation by Ney, Junot did not budge. He was then ordered, in the name of the Emperor to come to the assistance of Ney, but still he did not move.

Ney, facing greatly superior numbers, having engaged successively all the troops of his corps, ordered Gudin's division to take some strong positions held by the Russians. This order was executed with the greatest alacrity, but in the first wave the brave general fell mortally wounded. However, retaining his usual calm, and wishing to assure the success of the troops which he had so often led to victory, he appointed General Grard to take over the command, although he was the most junior brigade commander in the division.

Grard, at the head of the division attacked the enemy, and by ten in the evening, after losing 1800 men and killing some six thousand, he was master of the field of battle, from which the Russians made a hasty departure.

The next day the Emperor came to visit the troops who had fought so bravely; he rewarded them generously and promoted Grard to the rank of divisional general. Gudin died a few hours later.

If Junot had taken part in the action, he could have trapped the Russians in a narrow defile when, caught between two fires, they would have been forced to surrender, and thus brought the war to an end. One regretted the departure of King Jrme, whom Junot had replaced, for although a mediocre general, he would probably have gone to help Ney. We expected to see Junot severely punished, but he was one of Napoleon's earliest adherents and had supported him in all his campaigns, from the siege of Toulon in '93 to the present. The Emperor was fond of him and he forgave him. This was a pity, for it was becoming necessary to make an example.

When the Russian people heard of the fall of Smolensk, there was a general outcry against Barclay de Tolly. He was a German; the nation accused him of not putting enough effort into the war, and for the defence of ancient Muscovy they demanded a Muscovite general. Compelled to give way, Alexander handed the command of all the Russian armies to General Koutousoff, an elderly man of little ability, renowned only for his defeat at Austerlitz, but having the great merit, in the circumstances, of being an out and out Russian, which gave him a considerable influence in the eyes of the troops and the populace at large.

The French advance-guard, driving the enemy before it, had already passed Dorogobouje when, on the 24th of August, the Emperor decided to leave Smolensk. The heat was stifling; we marched on loose sand; there was insufficient food for such a large body of men and horses, for the Russians left nothing behind them but burning farms and villages. When the army entered Vyazma, this pretty town was in flames, and it was the same at Gzhatzk. The nearer we got to Moscow the fewer resources the countryside had to offer. Several men died and many horses. A few days later, the intolerable heat was succeeded by a cold rain which lasted until the 4th of September; autumn was approaching. The army was no more than six leagues from Mojaisk, the last town we had to take before reaching Moscow, when it was noticed that the strength of the enemy rear-guard had been considerably increased; an indication that a major battle was at last in prospect.

On the 5th, our advance-guard was briefly held up by a large Russian column, well entrenched on a small hill, garnished with a dozen guns. The 57th line regiment, which in the Italian campaign the Emperor had named the "Terrible", worthily upheld its reputation in capturing the redout and the enemy guns. We were already on the terrain upon which, forty-eight hours later, would be fought the battle which the Russians call Borodino and the French Moscow.

On the 6th, the Emperor announced in an order of the day that there would be a battle on the day following. The army welcomed this announcement with pleasure, in the hope that it would mean an end to their privations, for there had been no supply of rations for a month, and everyone had lived from hand to mouth. On both sides the evening was employed in taking up positions of readiness.

On the Russian side, Bagration, commanding 62,000 men was on the left wing; in the centre was the Hetman Platov with his Cossacks and 30,000 infantry in reserve; the right was made up of 70,000 men under the command of Barclay de Tolly, who was now the second in command, while the elderly General Koutousoff was the overall commander of all these troops, amounting to 162,000 men. The Emperor Napoleon had no more than 140,000, who were disposed as follows: Prince Eugne commanded the left wing, Marshal Davout the right, Marshal Ney the centre, King Murat the cavalry, while the Imperial Guard was in reserve.

The battle took place on the 7th of September; the weather was overcast and a cold wind raised clouds of dust. The Emperor, who was suffering from severe migraine, went down into a sort of ravine, where he spent the greater part of the day walking on foot. From this spot he could see only part of the battlefield, and to see its entirety he had to climb a nearby hillock, which he did only twice during the action. The Emperor has been blamed for his lack of activity, but it should be borne in mind that in the central position which he occupied with his reserves, he was able to receive frequent reports of events occurring at all points of the line, whereas if he had been on one wing or the other, the aides-de-camp, hurrying with urgent information over such broken ground, might not have been able to see him or known where to look for him. Also it must not be forgotten that the Emperor was ill and a strong and glacial wind prevented him from remaining on horseback.

I took no part in the battle of Moscow, so I shall refrain from going into any detail about the various manoeuvres carried out during this memorable action. I shall say only that after almost unheard of efforts the French succeeded in overcoming the most obstinate resistance of the Russians, and that the battle was one of the most bloody fought during the century. The two armies suffered casualties to a total of 50,000 dead or wounded. The French had 49 generals killed or wounded and 20,000 men put out of action. The Russian losses were a third greater. General Bagration, the best of their officers was killed, and by a bizarre turn of fate he happened to be the owner of the land on which the battle was fought. Twelve thousand horses were left on the field. The French took few prisoners, an indication of the courage and determination of the Russian resistance.

During the action there were several interesting episodes. When the Russian left had been twice driven back by the supreme efforts of Murat, Davout and Ney and had yet rallied for the third time and returned to the charge, Murat asked General Belliard to beg the Emperor to send part of his guard to secure a victory, failing which it would be necessary to fight another battle to beat the Russians. Napoleon was inclined to comply with this request, but Marshal Bessires, commandant of the Guard said to him "I shall permit myself to remind your majesty that you are at this moment some seven hundred leagues from France." Whether it was this observation or whether the Emperor thought that the battle had not reached the stage when he should commit his reserve, he refused the request. Two other demands of this kind met the same fate.

There was another remarkable incident which occurred in this battle so full of gallant deeds. The enemy front was covered by some high ground on which were redouts and redans and in particular, a crenelated fort armed with 80 guns. The French, after considerable losses had gained control of these field works but had not been able to retain the fort, and to regain it would be a very difficult task even for infantry. General Montbrun, who commanded the 2nd Cavalry Corps, had noticed, with the help of his field-glass, that the gate of the fort was not closed and that platoons of Russian soldiers were going through it. He also noticed that if one went round the side of the high ground, one could avoid the ramparts, ravines and rocks and lead a cavalry unit to the gate up a gentle slope suited to horses. General Montbrun proposed to get into the fort with his cavalry from the rear, while the infantry attacked the front. This hazardous operation having been approved by Murat and the Emperor, Montbrun was entrusted with its execution; but while the intrepid general was finalising his plan, he was killed by a cannon-ball. This was a great loss for the army, but it did not put an end to the project he had conceived, and the Emperor sent General Coulincourt to replace him.

One now saw something unheard of in the annals of war. A huge fort defended by numerous guns and several battalions of infantry attacked and taken by a column of cavalry. Coulincourt pressing ahead with a division of Cuirassiers, headed by their 5th regiment commanded by Colonel Christophe, broke through all those defending the approach to the fort, reached the gate, entered the interior and fell dead with a bullet through his head. Colonel Christophe and his troopers avenged their general by putting part of the garrison to the sword. The fort remained in their hands, which helped to assure a French victory.

Today, when the thirst for promotion has become insatiable, one would be astonished if, after such a feat, a colonel was not promoted; but during the Empire ambition was more modest. Christophe did not become a general until some years later, and never showed any discontent with this delay.

The Poles, usually so courageous, particularly those from the Grand Duchy of Warsaw commanded by Prince Poniatovski, fought so badly that the Emperor sent his major general to upbraid them. In this battle of Moscow, General Rapp was wounded for the twenty-first time.

Although the Russians had been defeated and forced to leave the field of battle, their generalissimo, Koutousoff, had the impudence to write to the Emperor Alexander claiming that he had just won a great victory over the French. This falsehood, which arrived in St.Petersburg on Alexander's birthday, gave rise to much rejoicing. A Te Deum was sung and Koutousoff was promoted to field-marshal. However it was not long before the truth was known and the joy turned to grief; but Koutousoff was now a field-marshal, which was what he wanted. Anyone but the timid Alexander would have severely punished the new field-marshal for this outrageous lie; but Koutousoff was needed, and so he remained head of the army.

Chap. 13.

The Russians, retreating towards Moscow, were contacted on the morning of the eighth, when there was a sharp cavalry engagement in which General Belliard was wounded. Napoleon spent three days at Mojaisk, partly to draw up the orders necessary in the circumstances and partly to reply to the back-log of despatches. One of these, which had arrived on the eve of the battle, had affected him greatly and had contributed to making him ill, for it announced that the so-called army of Portugal, commanded by Marshal Marmont, had suffered a severe defeat at Arpiles, near Salamanca, in Spain.

Marmont was one of Napoleon's mistakes. He had been one of Napoleon's companions at the college of Brienne and later in the artillery, and Napoleon took an interest in him. Misled by some success achieved by Marmont at school, the Emperor had a belief in the Marshal's military talents which his performance in the field never justified. In 1811, Marmont had replaced Massna as commander of the army of Portugal, proclaiming that he would defeat Wellington, but the contrary proved to be the case. Marmont, defeated, wounded, with his army in disarray and obliged to abandon several provinces, would have suffered even worse reverses if General Clausel had not come to his aid.

When he learned of this disaster, the Emperor must have reflected deeply on the present operation, for while he was about to enter Moscow at the head of his largest army, a thousand leagues away another army had just been defeated. By invading Russia was he about to lose Spain? Major Fabvier, who brought this despatch, volunteered to join in the battle for Moscow and was wounded in the assault on the great redout. It was a long way to come to be hit by a bullet.

On the 12th of September Napoleon left Mojaisk, and on the 15th he entered Moscow. This enormous city was deserted. General Rostopschine, its governor, had forced all the inhabitants to leave. This Rostopschine whom some have described as a hero, was a barbarian, who would shrink from nothing to achieve his aims. He had allowed the populace to strangle a number of foreign merchants, mainly the French, who were living in Moscow, on the sole grounds that they were suspected of hoping for the arrival of Napoleon's troops. Some days before the battle of Moscow, the Cossacks having captured about a hundred sick Frenchmen, Koutousoff sent them by a roundabout road to the governor of Moscow, who, regardless of their condition, left them for forty-eight hours without food and then paraded them triumphantly through the streets, where a number of these unfortunates collapsed and died of starvation. As this was happening, policemen read to the populace a proclamation by Rostopschine in which, to encourage them to take up arms, he declared that all the French were in a similar feeble state and would be easily overcome. When this disgusting performance was over, the majority of the soldiers still alive were killed by the mob, without Rostopschine doing anything to protect them.

The defeated Russian troops had only passed through Moscow, and had gone to re-group some thirty leagues from there, around Kalouga. Murat followed them with all his cavalry and several infantry corps. The Imperial Guard stayed in the town and Napoleon took up residence in the Kremlin, the ancient fortified palace of the Czars. Everything seemed peaceful, when, during the night 15th-16th September, some French and German merchants who had escaped the governor's attentions came to warn Napoleon's staff that the city was to be set on fire. This information was confirmed by a Russian policeman, who refused to carry out the orders of his superiors. He stated that before leaving Moscow, Rostopschine had thrown open all the prisons and released the prisoners and convicts, to whom he had given torches said to have been supplied by the British, and that these persons were lying hidden in the abandoned houses waiting for the signal. When the Emperor heard of this he instituted the strictest precautionary measures. Patrols went about the streets and killed a number of those caught setting fires alight, but it was too late; fire broke out in various parts of the city and spread rapidly owing to the fact that Rostopschine had taken away all the fire-fighting equipment. It was not long before the whole of Moscow was ablaze. The Emperor left the Kremlin and went to the chteau of Peterskoe. He did not return until three days later, when the fire was beginning to subside for lack of fuel. I shall not go into any details about the fire itself, as there are several eye-witness accounts, but later I shall examine the consequences of this catastrophic conflagration.

Napoleon, who did not understand the position in which Alexander found himself, hoped always for some accommodation and eventually, tired of waiting, he decided to write to him personally. In the meantime the Russian army was being reorganised in the area of Kalouga, from where agents were sent to direct stray soldiers back to their units. It was estimated that there were about 15,000 of them concealed in the suburbs and able to wander about our bivouacs without being challenged. They sat round the fires with our men and ate with them, yet no one thought of making them prisoners. This was a great mistake, for they gradually returned to the Russian army, while our strength diminished daily owing to sickness and the increasing cold. We lost an enormous number of horses, which was thought due to the extraordinary efforts demanded by Murat from the cavalry, of which he was the commander. Murat, recalling the brilliant successes obtained against the Prussians in 1806 and 1807 by pursuing them closely, thought that the cavalry should be equal to any demands and should march twelve to fifteen leagues a day without worrying about the fatigue of the horses, the essential being to reach the enemy with at least some of the columns. However the climate, the shortage of rations and fodder, the long duration of the campaign and above all the tenacious resistance of the Russians had greatly changed the situation, so that by the time we reached Moscow, half our cavalrymen had no horses, and Murat managed to finish off the rest at Kalouga. Prince Murat was proud of his tall stature and his bravery; and being always decked out in strange but brilliant uniforms he had attracted the notice of the enemy, with whom he was pleased to parley, even exchanging gifts with the Cossack officers. Koutousoff took advantage of these meetings to encourage in the French the false hopes of a peace, hopes which Murat passed on to the Emperor. One day however, this enemy who claimed to be so weakened, arose, slipped into our cantonments and captured some supplies, a squadron of dragoons and a battalion of troops. After this Napoleon forbade, under pain of death, any communication with the Russians which he had not authorised.

The Emperor never entirely lost hope of concluding a peace. On the 4th of October he sent General Lauriston, his aide-de-camp, to General Koutousoff's headquarters. The cunning Russian showed General Lauriston a letter which he had addressed to the Emperor Alexander, urging him to agree to the French proposals, seeing that, as he alleged, the Russian army was in no state to continue the war. The officer carrying this despatch had hardly left for St. Petersburg, armed with a pass from Lauriston which would preserve him from attack by any of our men who were in the area between the two armies, when Koutousoff sent off a second aide-de-camp to his Emperor. This officer, having no French laissez-passer, was stopped by one of our patrols, taken prisoner and his despatches sent to Napoleon. The contents were the exact opposite to what had been shown to Lauriston. After imploring his sovereign not to treat with the French, he informed him that Admiral Tchitchakoff's army, freed from its duties on the frontier by the peace with Turkey, was moving towards Minsk in order to cut the French line of retreat. He also told Alexander of the discussions he had conducted freely with Murat, with the aim of encouraging the false sense of security entertained by the French in remaining in Moscow so late in the year.

When he saw this letter, Napoleon, realising that he had been tricked, fell into a furious rage, and is said to have contemplated marching on St.Petersburg; but beyond the diminished strength of the army and the rigours of the winter, which militated against such an undertaking, there were pressing reasons for the Emperor to get closer to Germany, in order to watch over that country and to see what was going on in France, where there had been a conspiracy whose leaders had been, for one day, in control of the capital. A fanatic, General Malet, had tossed a spark into Paris which could have started a fire, which, had he not encountered a man as far-seeing and energetic as Adjutant-major Laborde, might have put an end to the imperial government.

This was not heartening, and one can imagine the anxiety of Napoleon when he learned of the danger which had threatened his family and his government.

Chap. 14.

In Moscow, Napoleon's position grew worse daily. The cold was already bitter and only the French-born soldiers maintained their morale, but they composed no more than half the force which Napoleon had led into Russia. The remainder was made up of Germans, Swiss, Croats, Lombards, Romanians, Piedmontais, Spaniards and Portuguese. All these foreigners, who stayed loyal as long as the army was successful, now began to complain and led astray by the leaflets in various languages which the Russians spread widely through our camps, they deserted in droves to the enemy, who promised to repatriate them.

Added to this, the two wings of the Grande Arme, which consisted entirely of Austrians and Prussians, were now no longer in line with the centre as they had been at the beginning of the campaign, but were in our rear, ready to bar our way on the first command of their sovereigns, ancient and irreconcilable enemies of France. The position was critical, and although it would greatly hurt Napoleon's pride to display to the whole world that he had failed in his objective of imposing a peace on Alexander, the word "retreat" was at last uttered, but neither the Emperor nor the marshals nor anyone else thought of abandoning Russia and recrossing the Nieman; the idea was to go into winter quarters in the least unpleasant of the Polish provinces.

The evacuation of Moscow was agreed on in principle, but before taking this step, Napoleon, in a last endeavour to obtain a settlement, sent an emissary to Marshal Koutousoff, who did not make any response.

During these delays our army was melting away, day by day, and in blind overconfidence our outposts remained at risk in the province of Kalouga in untactical positions, when suddenly a wholly unforeseen event occurred which opened the eyes of the most incredulous and destroyed any illusions which the Emperor still had of achieving peace.

General Sbastiani, whom we saw allowing himself to be surprised at Drouia, had replaced General Montbrun as commander of the 2ndCavalry Corps, and although close to the enemy, he spent his days in his slippers, reading Italian poetry and carrying out no reconnaissance. Taking advantage of this negligence, Koutousoff attacked Sbastiani on the 18th of October, surrounded him and overwhelmed him by numbers, forcing him to abandon part of his artillery. Sbastiani's three divisions of cavalry, separated from the rest of Murat's troops were able to rejoin them only after fighting their way through several enemy battalions who stood in their way. In the course of this savage combat, Sbastiani displayed his valour, for he was a brave man, if a noticeably mediocre general. Something which will be demonstrated anew when we come to the campaign of 1813.

At the same time as he surprised Sbastiani, Koutousoff ordered an attack on Murat's lines, in which the Prince was slightly wounded. Having learned of this unsatisfactory affair, and on the same day been told of the arrival in the enemy camp of a reinforcement of ten thousand cavalry from the Russian army in Wallachia (The Russian border with the Turks, in southern Romania. Ed.) which the Austrians, our allies, had allowed to pass, the Emperor gave the order for the departure to begin on the following day.

In the morning of the 19th of October, the Emperor left Moscow, which he had entered on the 15th of September. His Majesty, the old guard and the bulk of the army took the road to Kalouga; Marshal Mortier and two divisions of the Young Guard remained behind for twenty-four hours to complete the destruction of the city and blow up the Kremlin, after which they brought up the rear of the march.

The army trailed behind it more than forty thousand carriages, which caused an obstruction whenever the road narrowed. When this was remarked on to the Emperor, he replied that each of these coaches could carry two wounded men and food for several, and that their number would gradually diminish. The employment of this philanthropic system could, I think, be objected to, on the grounds that the need to speed the march of a retreating army seems to me to outweigh all other considerations.

During the French occupation of Moscow, Murat and the cavalry corps had been stationed in part of the fertile province of Kalouga, but without seizing the town of that name. The Emperor wished to avoid passing through the area of the battle of Moscow (Borodino) and down the road to Mojaisk, which had been stripped of resources by the army on its approach to Moscow; and for this reason he took the road to Kalouga, from where he counted on getting to Smolensk through fertile and, as it were, unspoiled country, but at the end of several day's march, the army, which after joining with Murat's force amounted still to more than 100,000 men, found itself confronting the Russian army which occupied the little town of Malo-Iaroslawetz. The enemy was in an exceedingly strong position, nevertheless the Emperor sent into the attack Prince Eugne, at the head of the Italian Corps and the French divisions of Morand and Gerard. Nothing could stand in the way of these men and they took the town after a long and murderous fight which cost us 4000 killed or wounded. Among the dead was General Delzons, a very fine officer.

The next day, the 24th of October, the Emperor, surprised at the degree of resistance he had encountered, and knowing that the whole Russian army barred his way, halted the march and spent three days considering what course he should follow.

On one occasion, during a reconnaissance of the enemy line, the Emperor nearly fell into their hands. There was a very thick fog, and suddenly shouts of "Hourra! Hourra!" were heard. It was a group of Cossacks who were emerging from a wood bordering the road, which they had been going through not twenty paces from the Emperor, knocking down and spearing anyone that they came across: but General Rapp rushed forward with the two squadrons of Chasseurs and mounted Grenadiers which went everywhere with the Emperor who, wielding their sabres, put the enemies to flight. It was during this encounter that M. Le Couteulx, my former companion on the staff of Marshal Lannes, and now an aide-de-camp to Prince Berthier, having armed himself with the lance belonging to a Cossack whom he had killed, was unwise enough to come back brandishing this weapon, and, furthermore, dressed in a pelisse and a fur hat which concealed the French uniform. A mounted Grenadier of the Guard mistook him for a Cossack officer, and seeing him heading towards the Emperor, went after him and slashed him across the body with his heavy sabre. In spite of this serious wound, M. Le Couteulx, placed in one of the Emperor's carriages, survived the cold and the exhaustion of the retreat, and managed to reach France.

The reconnaissance carried out by the Emperor had convinced him that it would be impossible to continue his march towards Kalouga without fighting a sanguinary battle against the large force commanded by Koutousoff. He decided, therefore, to reach Smolensk by taking the road leading through Mojaisk. The army then left the fertile countryside to take once more the now devastated route along which, marking their passage with fires and dead bodies, they had travelled in September. This movement by the Emperor left him, after ten weary days, no more than twelve leagues from Moscow, and caused the troops to feel increasing anxiety about the future. The weather turned much worse; Marshal Mortier rejoined the Emperor after having blown up the Kremlin.

The army saw once more Mojaisk and the battlefield of Borodino. The ground, furrowed by cannon-balls, was covered with the debris of helmets, cuirasses, wheels, weapons, fragments of uniform and thirty thousand bodies, partly eaten by wolves. The Emperor and the troops passed by quickly, casting a sad look at this immense graveyard.

After they had reached Vyazma the snow began to fall and a bitter wind to blow, which slowed their progress. Many of the vehicles were abandoned, and some thousands of men and horses perished of cold by the roadside. The flesh of the horses provided some nourishment for the men and also for the officers. The command of the rearguard passed successively from Davout to Prince Eugne and finally to Marshal Ney, who kept this unpleasant job for the rest of the campaign.

Smolensk was reached on the 1st of November. The Emperor had arranged for a great quantity of food clothing and footwear to be collected there, but those in charge of these supplies did not realise the state of disorganisation into which the army had fallen, and insisted on the paperwork and formalities of a normal distribution. This delay so exasperated the men, who were dying of cold and hunger, that they broke into the stores and took forcibly, whatever they could. With the result that some had too much, some enough and some nothing.

As long as the troops had maintained a proper order of march, the mixture of nationalities had given rise to no more than minor inconveniences, but once fatigue and privation had broken the ranks, discipline was lost. There was no way in which it could be maintained in a vast body of isolated individuals, lacking every necessity, walking on their own, without understanding why; for in this disorderly mass there ruled a veritable babel of tongues. A few regiments, mainly those in the Guard, held together. Almost all the troopers of the cavalry, having lost their horses, were formed into infantry battalions, and those of their officers who still were mounted were made into special squadrons, commanded by Generals Latour-Mauberg, Grouchy and Sbastiani, who acted as ordinary captains, while brigade commanders and colonels filled the post of sergeant and corporal. This resort alone, shows to what extremity the army was reduced.

In this critical position, the Emperor had counted on a strong division of troops of all arms, which General Baraguey d'Hilliers was supposed to bring to Smolensk; but, as we neared the town, we heard the General had laid down his arms before a Russian column, with the provision that he alone would not be made prisoner and would be allowed to rejoin the French army in order to explain his actions. The Emperor, however, refused to see Baraguey d'Hilliers and ordered him to return to France and to consider himself under arrest until he was brought before a court-martial. Baraguey d'Hilliers avoided court-martial by dying in Berlin, it was said, of despair.

This General was another of Napoleon's mistakes. He had been impressed by him at the time of the encampments at Boulogne when he had promised that he could train dragoons to serve either as cavalry or infantry. However, when this system was tried out in 1805, during the Austrian campaign, the Dragoons, now on foot and commanded by Baraguey d'Hilliers in person, were defeated at Wertingen before the eyes of the Emperor, and when placed once more on horseback, they once more suffered the same fate. It was several years before the unit recovered from the effects of this experiment. The originator of the system, having fallen from favour and hoping to re-establish himself by asking to come to Russia, had completed his downfall by capitulating without a struggle, and violating a decree stating that a commander forced to surrender should accompany his men into captivity, and forbidding him from negotiating terms favourable only to himself.

After spending several days at Smolensk, to allow stragglers to catch up with him, the Emperor went to Krasnoe, from where he despatched an officer to 2nd Corps, which was still by the Dvina and was now his only hope of safety.

The regiments of this corps, although they had not suffered the hardship and privation of those who had gone to Moscow, had however been more often in action against the enemy. Napoleon wishing to reward them by appointments to vacant positions, had brought to him for his approval a number of proposals for promotions, several of which related to me. One of these recommended me for the rank only of lieutenant-colonel and it was this that was put before the Emperor for his signature. I have it from General Grundler who, having been detailed to carry the despatch, found himself in the Emperor's office during the signing, that the Emperor scratched out with his own hand the words Lieutenant-colonel and wrote in the word Colonel, saying "I am paying off an old debt." So, on the 15th of November, I at last became Colonel of the 23rd Chasseurs, although I did not know it until some time later.

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