THE next night we slept on the field of battle. On the morning of the 10th the drums beat to arms. Lannes and Murat set out with the van-guard to bid the Austrians good morning, but could not find them. They had not slept, and had marched all night. Our half-brigade finished picking up the wounded Austrians and French whom we had not found the night before. We carried them off to the ambulances, and it was very late before we left the battle-field.
We were all night on the march along cross roads. At midnight, M. Lepreux, our colonel, called a halt, and passed down the ranks saying, “Maintain absolute silence.” Then he ordered the first battalion to move. We passed through narrow roads where we could not even see each other. The officers, who were on horseback, had dismounted, and the most profound silence reigned through the ranks. We filed out, and found ourselves in ploughed fields. We were still forbidden to make any noise, or to light any fire. We were obliged to lie down among the great clods of dirt, with our heads on our knapsacks, and wait for the day.
The next morning we were ordered on, with empty stomachs. We advanced only to find villages completely pillaged. We crossed ditches and marshes, a large stream, and came to villages filled with shrubbery. No provisions anywhere. All the houses were deserted. Our officers were overcome with fatigue and hunger. We left these marshy places, and turned to the left, into a village surrounded by orchards and gardens. Here we found some flour, a little bread, and a few animals. It was time, for we were dying of hunger.
On the 12th two half-brigades came up on our right wing, and our division was reunited. We were told that the name of the village was Marengo. In the morning the breakfast-drum beat. What joy! Twenty-seven wagons filled with bread had arrived. What happiness for the starving men! Every one was willing to do extra duty. But what was our disappointment! The bread was all damp and mouldy. We had to put up with it though.
On the 13th at break of day, we were made to march forward into an open plain, and at two o'clock we were placed in line of battle and piled arms. Aides-de-camp arrived from our right, who flew around in every direction. A general engagement was beginning; the 24th half-brigade was detached and sent forward unsupported. It marched a long distance, came up with the Austrians, and had a serious encounter, in which it lost heavily. It was obliged to form square in order to resist the attack of the enemy. Bonaparte abandoned it in this terrible position. It was said that he desired to leave it to be destroyed. The reason was this. At the time of the battle of Montebello, this half-brigade, having been ordered to advance by General Lannes, began by firing upon its officers. The soldiers spared only one lieutenant. I do not know what could have been the motive for this terrible vengeance. The Consul, informed of what had taken place, concealed his indignation. He could not give way to it when in face of the enemy. The lieutenant who had survived the destruction of his comrades was appointed captain; the staff immediately re-formed. But, nevertheless, it was understood that Bonaparte had not forgotten.
About five or six o'clock in the evening we were sent to extricate the 24th When we arrived, soldiers and officers heaped insults upon us, declaring that we had wantonly left them to destruction, as if it depended upon us to march to their assistance. They had been overwhelmed. I suppose they had lost half their men; but this did not prevent their fighting still better the next day.
The Austrians had occupied the city of Alessandria. All night long we were under arms; the outposts were placed as far forward as possible, and small covering-parties advanced. On the 14th at three o'clock in the morning, they surprised two of our small posts of four men and killed them. This was the signal for the morning reveille. At four o'clock there was firing on our right. Our drums beat to arms all along the line, and the aides-de-camp came and ordered us to form our lines of battle. We were made to fall back a little behind a fine field of wheat, which was on a slightly rising ground and concealed us, and there we waited a little while. Suddenly their sharpshooters came out from behind the willows and from the marshes, and then the artillery opened fire. A shell burst in the first company and killed seven men; a bullet killed the orderly near General Chambarlhac, who galloped off at full speed. We saw him no more all day.
A little general came up, who had fine mustaches: he found our colonel, and asked where was our general. We answered, “He is gone.”—“Very well, I will take command of the division.” And he immediately took charge of the company of grenadiers of whom I was one, and led us to the attack in one rank. We opened fire. “Do not halt while loading,” said he. “I will recall you by beat of drum.” And he hastened to rejoin his division. He had scarcely returned to his post when the column of Austrians started from behind the willows, deployed in front of us, fired by battalions, and riddled us with small shot. Our little general answered, and there we were between two fires, sacrificed.... I ran behind a big willow-tree, and fired into that column, but I could not stand it. The balls came from every direction, and I was obliged to lie down with my head on the ground in order to shield myself from the small shot, which were making the twigs fall all over me; I was covered with them. I believed myself lost.
Fortunately our whole division now advanced by battalions. I got up and found myself in a musket-company; I continued in it all the rest of the day, for not more than fourteen of our hundred and seventy grenadiers remained; the rest were killed or wounded. We were obliged to resume our first position, riddled by small shot. Everything fell upon us who held the left wing of the army, opposite the high road to Alessandria, and we had the most difficult position to maintain. They constantly endeavoured to outflank us, and we were obliged to close up continually, in order to prevent them from surprising us in the rear.
Our colonel ran up and down the line, inspiring us with his presence; our captain, who had lost his company and who was wounded in the arm, performed the duties of orderly officer to our intrepid general. We could not see one another in the smoke. The guns set the wheat-field on fire, and this caused a general commotion in the ranks. Some cartridge-boxes exploded; we were obliged to fall back and form again as quickly as possible. This weakened our position, but the situation was restored by the intrepidity of our chiefs, who looked out for everything.
In the centre of the division was a barn surrounded by high walls, where a regiment of Austrian dragoons had concealed themselves; they burst upon a battalion of the 43rd brigade and surrounded it; every man of it was captured and taken to Alessandria. Fortunately General Kellermann came up with his dragoons and restored order. His charges silenced the Austrian cavalry.
Nevertheless, their numerous artillery overwhelmed us and we could hold out no longer. Our ranks were thinned visibly; all about us there were only wounded men to be seen, and the soldiers who bore them away did not return to their ranks; this weakened us very much. We had to yield ground. Their columns were constantly reinforced; no one came to our support. Our musket-barrels were so hot that it became impossible to load for fear of igniting the cartridges. There was nothing for it but to piss into the barrels to cool them, and then to dry them by pouring in loose powder and setting it alight unrammed. Then, as soon as we could fire again, we retired in good order. Our cartridges were giving out and we had already lost an ambulance when the consular guard arrived with eight hundred men having their linen overalls filled with cartridges; they passed along our rear and gave us the cartridges. This saved our lives.
Then our fire redoubled and the Consul appeared; we felt ourselves strong again. He placed his guard in line in the centre of the army and sent it forward. They immediately held the enemy, forming square and marching in battle order. The splendid horse-grenadiers came up at a gallop, charged the enemy at once and cut their cavalry to pieces. Ah! that gave us a moment to breathe, it gave us confidence for an hour. But not being able to hold out against the consular horse-grenadiers, they turned upon our half-brigade and drove in the first platoons, sabring them. I received such a blow from a sabre on my neck that my queue was almost cut off; fortunately I had the thickest one in the regiment. My epaulet was cut off with a piece of my coat and shirt, and the flesh a little scratched. I fell head over heels into a ditch.
The cavalry charges were terrible. Kellermann made three in succession with his dragoons; he led them forward and led them back. The whole of that body of cavalry leaped over me as I lay stunned in the ditch. I got rid of my knapsack, my cartridge-pouch, and my sabre.I took hold of the tail of a retreating dragoon's horse, leaving all my belongings in the ditch. I made a few strides behind that horse which carried me away, and then fell senseless, not being able to breathe any longer. But, thank God, I was saved! But for my head of hair, which I still have at seventy-two years of age, I should have been killed.
I had time to find a musket, a cartridge-pouch, and a knapsack (the ground was covered with them). I resumed my place in the second company of grenadiers, who received me with cordiality. The captain came and shook hands with me. “I thought you were lost, my brave fellow,” said he;” you got a famous sabre stroke, for you have no queue and your shoulder is badly hurt. You must go to the rear.”—“I thank you, I have plenty of cartridges, and I am going to revenge myself upon such troopers as I meet; they have done me too much harm; they shall pay for it.”
We retreated in good order, but the battalions were visibly reduced, and quite ready to give up but for the encouragement of their officers.. We held out till noon without being disordered. Looking behind, we saw the Consul seated on the bank of the ditch by the highway to Alessandria, holding his horse by the bridle, and flirting up little stones with his riding-whip. The cannonballs which rolled along the road he did not seem to see. When we came near him he mounted his horse and set off at a gallop behind our ranks. “Courage, soldiers,” said he, “the reserves are coming. Stand firm !” Then he was off to the right of the army. The soldiers were shouting, “Vive Bonaparte !” But the plain was filled with the dead and wounded, for we had no time to gather them up; we had to face in all directions. Battalion fire from echelons formed in the rear, arrested the enemy, but those cursed cartridges would no longer go into our fouled and heated musket barrels. We had to piss into them again. This caused us to lose time.
My brave captain, Merle, passed behind the second battalion, and the captain said to him, “I have one of your grenadiers; he has received a famous sabre-cut.”— “Where is he? Bring him out, so that I may see him. Ah! it is you, is it, Coignet ?”—“Yes, captain.”—“I thought you were among the dead, I saw you fall into the ditch.”—“They gave me a famous sabre-cut; see, they have cut off my queue.”—“Look here, feel in my knapsack, take my ‘life-preserver,’ and drink a cup of rum to restore you. This evening, if we live, I shall come and seek you out.”—“Now I am saved for the day, captain; I shall fight finely.” The other captain said, “I wanted him to go to the rear, but he would not.”—“I can readily believe it; he saved my life at Montebello.” They took me by the hand. There's nothing like appreciation! I shall feel the value of it all my life.
Meanwhile, do all we could, we were beginning to fail. It was two o'clock. “The battle is lost,” said our officers, when suddenly an aide-de-camp arrived at a sweeping gallop. He cried, “Where is the First Consul? The reserves are up. Courage! you will be reinforced at once, within half an hour.” Then up came the Consul. “Steady,” said he, as he passed along, “reserves are at hand.” Our poor little platoons gazed down the road to Montebello every time we turned around.
Finally came the joyful cry, “Here they are, here they are !” That splendid division came up, carrying arms. It was like a forest swayed by the wind. The troops marched at a steady pace, with batteries of guns in the spaces between the half-brigades, and a regiment of heavy cavalry bringing up the rear. Having reached their position, they took possession of it as though they had chosen it expressly for their line of battle. On our left, to the left of the highway, a very tall hedge concealed them; not even the cavalry could be seen.
Meanwhile we continued our withdrawal. The Consul gave his orders, and the Austrians came along as though they were on their way home, with sloped arms; they paid no attention to us; they believed us to be utterly routed. We had gone three hundred paces past the division of General Desaix, and the Austrians were also about to pass the line, when the thunderbolt descended upon the head of their column. Grape-shot, shells, and musket-fire rained upon them. Our drums beat a general charge; the whole line wheeled about and ran forward. We did not shout, we yelled.
The men of the brave 9th demi-brigade dashed like rabbits through the hedge; they rushed with their bayonets upon the Hungarian grenadiers, and gave them no time to recover. The 30th and 59th fell in their turn upon the enemy and took four thousand prisoners. The regiment of heavy cavalry charged in turn. Their whole army was routed. Every man did his duty, but the 9th excelled them all. Our other cavalry came up, and rushed in solid column upon the Austrian cavalry, whom they so completely routed that they rode off at full gallop to Alessandria. An Austrian division coming from the right wing charged us with bayonets. We ran up also and crossed bayonets with them. We overcame them, and I received a small cut in the right eyelid, as I was parrying a thrust from a grenadier. I did not miss him, but the blood blinded my eyes (they had a grudge against my head that day). It was a small matter. I continued to march and did not suffer from it. We followed them until nine o'clock in the evening: we threw them into the ditches full of water. Their bodies served as a bridge upon which others could cross over. It was frightful to see these unfortunate wretches drowning, and the bridge all blocked with them. We could hear nothing but their cries; they were cut off from the city, and we took their wagon-trains and guns. At ten o'clock, my captain sent his servant to ask me to take supper with him, and my eye was dressed and my hair put in good condition.
We slept on the battle-field, and the next day at four o'clock in the morning, a party with flags of truce came out of the city. They demanded an armistice, and went to the headquarters of the Consul. They were well escorted. The camp became gay once more. I said to my captain, “If you please, I would like to go to headquarters.”—“What for ?”—“I have some acquaintances among the guard. Let me have a man to go with me.”— “But it's a long way.”—“No matter, we will return early, I promise you.”—“Very well, go.”
We set out, our sabres at our sides. Upon reaching the grille of the chateau of Marengo, I asked for a cavalry sergeant who had been long in the corps, and a very handsome man appeared. “What do you want with me ?” said he.—“I wish to know how long you have been in the guard of the Directory.”—“Nine years.”—“It was I who trained your horses, and who rode them at the Luxembourg. If you remember, it was M. Potier who sold them to you.”—“That is so,” said he to me; “come in, I will present you to my captain.” He told my comrade to wait, and introduced me as follows: “Here is the young man who trained our horses at Paris.”—“And who rode so well,” added the captain.—“Yes, captain.”— “But you are wounded.”—“Ah! it is a bayonet thrust from a Hungarian. I punished him. But they cut my queue half off. If I had been on horseback that would not have happened to me.”—“I dare say,” said he, “I know your skill in that respect. Sergeant, give him a drink.”—“Have you any bread, captain ?”—“Get four loaves for him. I am going to show you your horses and see if you will recognize them.” I pointed out twelve of them to him. “That's right,” said he, “you recognized them very easily.”—“Yes, captain. If I had been mounted on one of those horses, they would not have cut off my hair; but they shall answer for it. I shall enter the Consul's guard. I am marked out for a silver musket, and when I have made four campaigns, the Consul has promised to put me in his guard.”—“Very likely, my brave grenadier. If you ever come to Paris there is my address. What is your captain's name ?”—“Merle, first company of grenadiers of the 86th half-brigade of the line.”—“There are five francs to drink my health. I promise to write to your captain. Give him this bottle of brandy with my compliments.”—“I thank you for your kindness, now I must go; my comrade is waiting for me at the grille, I must take him some bread at once.”— “I did not know it, off you go, then. Take another loaf and be off to join your corps.”—“Farewell, captain, you saved the army by your splendid charges. I saw you at it.”—“ That is so,” said he.
He, with his sergeant, accompanied me as far as the grille. The wounded of the guard were stretched on some straw in the courtyard, and amputations were being made. It was heart-rending to hear their cries on all sides. I came out with my heart rent with grief, but a more horrible spectacle was to be seen on the plain. We saw the battle-field covered with Austrian and French soldiers who were picking up the dead and placing them in piles and dragging them along with their musket straps. Men and horses were laid pell-mell in the same heap, and set on fire in order to preserve us from pestilence. The scattered bodies had a little earth thrown over them to cover them.
I was stopped by a lieutenant, who said to me, “Where are you going ?”—“I am taking some bread to my captain.”—“You got it at the Consul's headquarters. Could you give me a bit ?”—“Yes.” I said to my comrade, “You have a small piece, give it to the lieutenant.”—“Thank you, my brave grenadier, you have saved my life. Go down the road to the left.” And he had the kindness to accompany us a good bit of the way, fearing we might be arrested. I thanked him for his goodness, and soon reached my captain, who smiled when he saw my package. “Have you been on a looting party ?”— “Yes, captain, I have brought you some bread and some brandy.”—“And where did you find it ?” I related my adventure. “Ah,” said he, “you were born under a lucky star.”—“See, here is a loaf and a bottle of good brandy. Put some in your ‘ life-preserver.’ If you want a loaf for the colonel and the general, you can divide with them; they are likely to need it.”—“That's a good idea; I will do so with pleasure, and I thank you on their behalf.”—“But do you first eat and drink some of this good brandy, sir. I am delighted to be able to return the service you rendered me and the good meal you enabled me to enjoy.”—“You shall tell me all that some other time. I am going to take this bread to the colonel and the general.”
All this the captain set down to my account. On the 16th the army received orders to carry laurels, and the oak-trees had a hard time. At noon we marched past before the First Consul, with our excellent general on foot in front of the remnant of his division. General Chambarlhac had appeared on horseback at the head of his division, but he was saluted with a volley from our half-brigade, and he disappeared. We never saw him again, and the sequel of that story is unknown to us. But we gave three cheers for our little general who had led us so bravely on the day of the battle.
On the morning of the 16th General Melas sent back our prisoners (there were about twelve hundred of them) and this was a great delight to us. Provisions had been given them, and they were triumphantly received on their arrival. On the 26th the first Austrian column filed before us, and we watched them go by. What a superb column it was ! there were men enough in it to have overwhelmed us at that moment, seeing how few of us there were. It was fearsome to see such a body of cavalry and artillery; they were three days in passing. They had no artillery left, only baggage-wagons. They left us half of their stores; we got considerable provisions and ammunition. They yielded to us forty leagues of country, and retired behind the Mincio. We brought up the rear of the last column. We travelled along together; our lame men mounted on their carriages; they marched on the left and we on the right side of the road. No one quarrelled, and we were the best friends in the world.
Marching thus, we came to the flying bridge over the river Po. As only five hundred men could cross at one time over this flying bridge, we lost no time, and continued our march to Cremona, the place which we were to garrison during the three months of truce agreed upon. Cremona is a beautiful city which is proof against surprise. Splendid ramparts and solid gates. The town is considerable; there is a handsome cathedral with an immense dial; an arrow-hand makes the circuit of it once in a hundred years. In the markets they weigh everything; even onions and grass; it is filled with delicious melons called watermelons; there are milk taverns there. But it is the worst garrison in Italy; we slept on the ground, on straw filled with vermin. Breeches, jackets and undervests were in a deplorable condition. I conceived the idea of killing the vermin which bit me. I made some lye in a copper boiler and put my jacket in it. Alas for me ! The jacket melted away like paper, nothing was left me but the lining. There I was entirely naked, and nothing in my knapsack to put on.
My good comrades came to my assistance. I at once had letters written to my father and my uncle; I informed them of my distress, and begged them to send me a little money. Their answers were long delayed but came at last. I received both letters at the same time (not prepaid); they each cost me a franc and a half, in all three francs for postage. My old sergeant happened to be present. “Do me the kindness to read them.” He took my two letters. My father said, “If you were a little nearer I would send you a little money.” And my uncle said, “I have just paid my taxes, I can send you nothing.” Such were my two charming letters! I never wrote to them again in my life. After the truce, I had to mount guard at the outposts four times, as a forward sentinel on the bank of the Mincio, at fifteen sous a watch, in order to pay this debt.
These two letters have made me lose sight of my subject. I return to Cremona, where we passed three months in utter misery. Our half-brigade was made up and our company was organized; they took a third from each of two companies so as to make them all equal, and they took grenadiers from the battalion so as to finish our quota. Every day we were paraded on the great road, with our knapsacks on our back, and forbidden to quit our ranks; the discipline was severe. General Brune was the commanding officer of this fine army. We could say that we were commanded by a good general. May France give us many such! One would be willing to follow him anywhere. Then during the three months' truce our army was magnificently re-enforced; troops came in from every direction. How we longed for the 15th of September when we should leave this wretched garrison and enter the field again.
The happy day arrived, and the whole army rejoiced. We set out to join the line at a strong town called Viédane, where we began to breathe freely and found provisions. Our scouts discovered a wine cave under a hill; we held a council to determine how we should get the wine. It was dangerous to rob the house, seeing that war had not been declared. So we decided that we should have an order. “But who will sign it ?”—“The pen,” said the quartermaster, as he signed it with his left hand. —“How many rations ?”—“Five hundred,” said the sergeant-major.—“We must show the order to the lieutenant and see what he will say.”—“Take it,” said the lieutenant, “and see if it will work.”—“Come, let us go, we will see.” We started off after having affixed the colonel's seal. His servant said to us, “I understand; I'll seal it with lamp-black.” We presented our order, the distribution was immediately made, and “the pen” gave us five hundred rations of good wine. The captain and the lieutenant laughed heartily the next day.
We now departed for Brescia where the army was assembled in a beautiful plain; the commanding general reviewed us. Brescia is a strong city, easily defended; a river flows by it which is deep but not wide. Next day we set out for a march to the Mincio; there the whole army was in line, and it was decided to cross at a very high point which overlooked the other shore. A village concealed it from the Austrian army, which was very numerous. Twenty-five thousand men were sent over. There was a terrible battle; our troops, thoroughly beaten, were obliged to fall back, with loss, upon the Mincio. Fortunately our army was protected by its very elevated position overlooking the plain, which prevented our being thrown head over heels into the Mincio. General Suchet, with fifty heavy pieces, fired broadsides upon them which passed over our columns, cut down their ranks, and held them in the plain. Every one was working the guns, and our three battalions of grenadiers were obliged to watch the whole affair without being able to take any part in it.
I saw a brave act done by a little light-infantryman. Being left alone in the plain by the retreating army, he fired upon the advancing column, and shouted “Forward !” His boldness caused the division to wheel about; they sounded a charge and went to his aid. The general kept his eye upon him; he sent his aide-de-camp for him. When the aide-de-camp reached the spot and saw the light-infantryman, who was still in front of the line, he hastened to him and said, “The general wishes to see you.”—“No,” said he.—“Come with me; obey your general.”—“But I have done nothing wrong.”—“He wants to reward you.”—“Ah! that is another matter. I am with you.” When brought before the general he was triumphantly received by all the officers, and entered on the list for a musket of honour.
That evening we started for a position three miles higher up, near a mill which was on our left with a fine rising ground behind us. The regiment of hussars de la mort asked that they might be the first to cross over so as to avenge themselves for Montebello. Their colonel promised fifty louts to the hussar who should give the first sabre cut ahead of him, and they were given eighteen hundred men of the Polish infantry, without knapsacks. They crossed the bridge and went to the right along the Mincio; the Poles followed them at the run. They fell upon the head of the Austrian column, gave them no time to form a line of battle, sabred them and carried off six thousand prisoners and four colours. Our three battalions of grenadiers crossed immediately, under General Lebrun, a good soldier. General Brune ordered him to take the redoubt which commanded the bridge, and we marched on it at once. They surrendered under fire; there were two thousand men and two colours. The whole army passed over, and formed in line of battle. The columns faced each other; we overcame them, took their baggage, caissons, and some pieces of cannon. The carnage was terrible.
The Austrians took the road to Verona so as to pass the Adige. Our divisions pursued them; we blockaded the fort which overlooked the city at a height of three hundred feet. General Brune sent a flag of truce into the citadel to warn them that he was about to enter Verona, and that if a single gun was fired upon the city, he should immediately blow up the fort. Our three battalions of grenadiers passed through the city, and the Austrians only looked at us. We encamped two miles farther on; at midnight we were placed on the right wing of the army as outposts. I was on guard at the advanced post. The adjutant-major came and posted us. I was the first to go on sentry; they stationed me in a meadow, giving me the countersign. “Fire upon anything that moves on your right, without calling out ‘Who goes there ?’ and keep your ears open lest you should be surprised.”
There I was for the first time alone as a forward sentry; in utter darkness, and kneeling on the ground to listen. At last the moon rose; I was very glad to be able to look around me, and I was no longer afraid. What should I see a hundred steps off, but a Hungarian grenadier with his fur cap! He did not move. I took careful aim, fired, and at the sound of my shot, our whole line began firing wildly. I thought that the enemy was everywhere. I reloaded, and the corporal came up with three men. I pointed to my Hungarian; they said, “Fire again, and they'll all show up.” I took aim, and fired; nothing stirred. The adjutant-major came up; “Look,” said I to him, “don't you see him below there ?” We walked over. It was a willow-tree with a bushy top which had frightened me. The major told me that I had done well, that he should have been deceived himself, and that I had done my duty.
We marched upon Vicenza, a beautiful city; but the Austrians were advancing on Padua by forced marches. There was joy everywhere on account of our good canton meets; but our half-brigade with a regiment of chasseurs was ordered on to the Venetian coast. The general who commanded this expedition had only one arm. He had lanterns made so that we could march at night, and during the day we remained concealed among the reeds. We had to make small bridges over the great ditches so as to take our cavalry and artillery across; there were only marshes and fishermen's huts. By dint of exertion, we reached the appointed place; it was a river of strong current, with an embankment separating it from the sea. This river, farther on, joined four others which emptied together into the sea and formed an estuary. We had to take possession of all these rivers in order to secure fresh water.
A corps of the Austrian guard was stationed as advance guard upon the great causeway; redoubts faced the river at the distance of a quarter of a league. A sentry was stationed upon the embankment. This man spoke German and made acquaintance with the Austrian sentry. Our sentry asked him for some tobacco, and the German asked ours for wood. Our sentry told him that he would come with two of his comrades and bring him some when he was off duty. So our grenadiers set off with the wood; the others brought the tobacco. The next day we promised them a large supply; they were delighted and said, “We will give you some tobacco.”
In the morning fifty grenadiers arrived laden with wood and were kindly received; they seized the Austrians' guns and took them prisoners. Immediately the trench was opened and guns placed in position. This was a good strategic point. The ships loaded with flour which were coming down the river on their way to the sea, fell into our hands, also two ships loaded with eels and fish. We had a ship all to ourselves, and we ate them cooked in every way.
When the Venetians were thirsty they came and drew water, and the general got as much as he wanted for it. He had promised us three francs a day, but the accounts were soon settled quite otherwise. He did not give us a sou, and sent everything home. Then General Clausel took command. We were quiet only a little while; Mantua surrendered; we saw its garrison pass by, and we had orders to set out for Verona to celebrate the peace. In this place, which is magnificent, the order of the day was read to us, and we learned that our half-brigade was under orders for Paris. What joy for us! We crossed the whole of Italy; nothing can be seen more beautiful than Turin, it is magnificent. We crossed Mont Cenis, reached Chambery, and from Chambery went to Lyons.
When our old regiment reached the Place Bellecour, all the incroyables quizzed us through their eye-glasses and asked if we came from Italy. We answered, “Yes, sirs.” —“And you have not got the itch ?”—“No, sirs.” Then rubbing their eye-glasses on their sleeves, they replied, “Incredible !”
They did not wish to have us quartered in the city, but General Leclerc compelled them to give us billets, and immediately he was granted seven permits for each company, for the oldest soldiers. What a delight this was for those old soldiers! The Consul never granted so many of them as on this occasion. The next day we were informed that we were not going to Paris as we had expected, but in fact to Portugal. The general commandeered us among the forty thousand men of his army; we were obliged to resign ourselves to going off in a deplorable condition, with clothing made of all sorts of cloth.
We started for Bayonne; the distance was great; we suffered from the heat, but at last we reached the bridge of Irun. Our comrades found a stork's nest and took the two young ones. The authorities came to the colonel to reclaim them; the alcalde requested him to restore them, because these birds were necessary in that climate for the destruction of serpents and lizards; he said that the galleys was the penalty for those who killed storks in that country. Consequently they are seen there everywhere; the plains are covered with them, and they walk about in the streets of the towns. Old wheels are put up for them on the top of high posts, and they make their nests in the gable-ends of the buildings.
Having reached our first halting place, some of our soldiers found some Malaga wine at three sous a bottle, and they drank it as though it had been whey; they fell down dead drunk. We had to put them in wagons and carry them along as if they had been calves. At the end of a week it was still necessary to feed our drunkards; they could not hold the soup in their spoons. Not a soldier could eat his ration, the wine had been so strong. We reached Vittoria, a lovely town; from there we went to Burgos, and from Burgos to Valladolid, a fine large city, where we remained a long time among the vermin. The soldiers practically slept on lice, which stirred up the straw in heaps. It is the custom among the Spaniards to take these lice up between their fingers and throw them on the ground, saying, “Let him who created thee nourish thee.” A dirty race.
I had the good fortune to be made a sapper; I had a very long beard all round my face, and I was selected by Colonel Lepreux. I was dressed anew in full uniform, and we were quartered in the house of a citizen where we could get rid of the vermin; but at night we were obliged to remain indoors for fear of being killed.
From Valladolid we departed for Salamanca, a large town where we remained a long time going through reviews and making petty warfare; our vanguards reached the frontier of Portugal, and still there was no fighting. They brought away seventeen wagons with a strong escort, and peace was made without a battle.
We returned to France by way of Valladolid. As we were leaving the city, the Spaniards killed our quarter-master-sergeants with clubs, and had the audacity to come and take our colours from the colonel's guardhouse in a village near Burgos. All the men were asleep; the sentry shouted, “To arms,” and it was time; they were just going out of the village. They were caught by our grenadiers, who bayoneted them without mercy.
We reached Burgos, and set out for Vittoria. Thence we crossed the frontier on our way to Bayonne, our frontier city. We passed all the halting places until we came to Bordeaux, where we were to stop. I was quartered upon an old lady who was sick. I presented myself with my billet, and she was a little frightened on seeing my long beard. I reassured her as well as I could, but she said, “I am afraid of soldiers.”—“Fear nothing, madame, I ask nothing, and my comrade is a very nice fellow.”—“Very well, I will keep you at my house; you shall be well fed and have comfortable beds.” Ah ! how comfortably we were housed! After dinner, she sent her maid for me. “I sent for you to tell you that I am reassured, and that you are very quiet; I have ordered my servant to take good care of you.”—“Thank you, madame.”—“You see, I have good reason to be anxious; I have had terrible experiences. Robespierre sent fourteen members of my family to the guillotine, and the monster only spared me myself because I gave him thirty thousand francs’ worth of plate and jewels. Yes, and he made me lie with him to save my husband's life, and then had him beheaded next morning. Such, sir, have been my family's sufferings. The scoundrel was punished in the end, but it was too late.”
We set out for Tours following the appointed halting-places, and on arriving there we were received by General Beauchou, who presented to us an old soldier who had served eighty-four years as a private in our half-brigade. The Consul had given him, on retiring, the privilege of eating at the general's table; he was one hundred and two years old, and his son was in command of a battalion. A chair was brought for him; he wore the uniform of an officer, but without epaulets. There was still in the corps a sergeant of his time, who had served thirty-three years.
After leaving the beautiful city of Tours, we went into quarters at Le Mans (in the department of the Sarthe), which is considered the best garrison in France. The splendid national guard marched in front of us, and there was great joy in the town, on seeing a good old regiment quartered there. The walls of the barracks were still stained with the blood of the victims who had been murdered by the Chouans, and we were lodged for two months in private houses where we were received as brothers. The barracks were repaired and we remained there a year. The colonel married a young lady of Alençon who was very rich, and entertainments were given in the town. There were a great many invitations. I was appointed to carry the invitations to the houses in the country. The colonel was generous to the regiment; all the officers were invited.
During this period, I received a letter from Paris, and I was surprised (but what a surprise!). It was from my dear sister, who had discovered me through the efforts of her master, who had a relative in the office of the minister of war. It was a great joy for me to know that she was in Paris, as cook at the house of a hatter, on the Place du Pont-Neuf.
The council of administration of the regiment had orders to nominate soldiers for the cross of honour, and my name was put on the list of those who deserved it. My commanding officer, Merle, and the colonel called me up to tell me about it; it had come from the office of the minister of war. I replied, “I thank you, captain.”— “The colonel and I have claimed the promise of the Consul to you in reference to the guard, and I have signed this application with the colonel, it is your due.” A fortnight after, the colonel sent for me. “The good news has come. You are appointed to the guard; you shall be paid off and depart. I will give you a letter of recommendation to General Hulin, who is a great friend of mine. Go and tell your commandant about it, he will be very glad to hear of it.” I was glad to set out for Paris, and to be able to go and embrace my good sister whom I had not seen since she was seven years old. My officer kindly said, “If ever I go to Paris, I shall ask to see you. Now lose no time, go back to the barracks.”
I told the good news to all my comrades, who said, “We will all see you off.” The sergeant and the corporal also said, “We will all go as escort to our brave sapper.” When I was paid off, I set out from Le Mans with two hundred francs in my purse (a fortune for a poor soldier), accompanied by my good comrades with the sergeant and corporal at their head. They had to make a halt and leave me after going a mile, and I reached Paris the 2nd Germinal, year XI, and went to the barracks near the Place Vendôme called the Capuchin's barracks.
I was appointed to mess with the third company of the first battalion. My captain's name was Renard; he had only one fault, and that was being too small. As a compensation for this, he had the voice of a Stentor; he was big when he gave command; he was a man who had had much experience, and was my captain ever afterward. I was conducted to his house, he received me cordially. My long beard made him laugh, and he asked my permission to touch it. “If you were larger, I would give you a place among our sappers; you are too small.”—“ But, captain, I have a musket of honour.” —“Is it possible ?”—“Yes, captain. I have a letter for General Hulin from my colonel, also a letter for his brother, a cloth merchant on the Porte St. Denis.”— “Very well, I will keep you in my company. To-morrow at noon, I will go with you to the office of the minister, and there we will see.”—“It was the minister himself who found me on my gun at Montebello.”—“Ah! after hearing all this, I wish to-morrow were here, that I might see if he would recognize you.”—“I wore no beard at Montebello, but he has my name, for he wrote it down in a little green memorandum book.”—“Very well, to-morrow at noon, I will present you.”
The next day, at noon, we started out to go to the minister's office; we sent in our names and were taken into the presence of the minister. “Well, captain, you bring me a fine sapper. What does he want with me ?” —“He says that you recommended him for a position in the guard.”—“What is your name ?”—“Jean-Roch Coignet, it was I who was on the gun at Montebello.”— “Ah ! that was you, was it ?”—“Yes, general.”—“ Did you receive my letter ?”—“My colonel, M. Lepreux, did.” —“You are right. Go into the office opposite, ask for the portfolio of the officers of the 96th half-brigade, tell your name and bring me a paper which I have signed for you.”
I went to inquire at the office; they gazed at my beard without granting my request. This beard was thirteen inches long, and they thought it was artificial. “Is it natural ?” asked the chief. I took hold of it and pulled it; “See,” said I to him, “it sticks to my chin and is well rooted.”—“ Well, my good sapper, here is a paper worthy of you.”—“Thank you.”
Then I took the paper to the minister, who said to me, “You see I have not forgotten you. You will be wearing something pretty there before long,” said he, as he laid his hand on my coat. “And you, Renard, you will receive a letter for him to-morrow at ten o'clock; he is a soldier worth having, be sure to keep him in your company.” I thanked the minister, and we started off at once to go to the house of General Davoust, colonel-general of the foot grenadiers. He received us pleasantly, and said, “You bring me a sapper who has a fine beard.” —“I want to keep him in my company,” said my captain to him; “he has a musket of honour But he is very small.”
He made me stand beside him, and said, “You are not tall enough for a grenadier.”—“But I would like to keep the place, general.”—“We must cheat the measure. When he passes under the measure make him put some packs of cards in his stockings. You see,” said he, “he's too short by an inch or more. Never mind, you will see that with two packs of cards under each foot, he will pass all right; you must go with him.”—“ Certainly, general.” “If he be accepted be will be the smallest of my Grenadiers.”—“But he is to be decorated.”—“Ah! that makes a difference, do your best to have him accepted.”
Then we went off to get the cards and put them in my stockings. My captain managed everything well; he was nimble as a fish and soon got it all over. That very evening, I was standing straight as a line under the measure, and my captain was there also, holding himself very erect, thinking by that means to make me taller. However, I measured my inches, thanks to my packs of cards. I went off triumphant. My captain was also delighted; I was enrolled into his company. “You must cut off your fine beard,” said he.—“Let me wear it a fortnight longer; I would like to make a few visits before cutting it off.”—“I grant you a month, but you must drill.”—“ Thank you very much for all your trouble on my account.”—“I shall have you entered on the payroll from yesterday.”—“I ask leave to take my letter.”— “Certainly,” said he.
He sent for a sergeant-major and said to him, “Here is a little grenadier. Give a permit to Coignet to attend to his business, and have it delivered to him at once so that he can go in and out. Put him in the smallest mess. You have the biggest man in it, and now you shall have the smallest.”—“Just the thing, he is alone at present; he is a good comrade; we shall be able to say ‘the smallest with the biggest.’” The sergeant-major conducted me to my room, and presented me to my comrades. One of the grenadiers, a jolly fellow, six feet four inches tall, burst out laughing on seeing how small I was. “Well,” said the sergeant to him, “here is your bedfellow.”—“ I could smuggle him under my coat.” I laughed at this, and supper being ready (we did not eat from one dish, each one had his own soup-bowl), I gave ten francs to the corporal. Every one was pleased at this. The corporal said, “You must go with your comrade and buy a soup-bowl to-morrow.” The next day we went to buy my soup-bowl, and I treated my comrade to two bottles of beer. On returning to the barracks, I asked permission to go out until the roll-call at noon. “Run along,” said my corporal.
I flew to see my good sister at the hatter's house on the Place du Pont-Neuf. I presented myself with the letter which the master of the house had had the kindness to write me, and they were surprised to see such a beard as mine. “I am the soldier to whom you were so good as to write at Le Mans. I have come to see my sister Marianne; here is your letter.”—“I recognize it,” said he; “come, but wait a moment, your long beard might frighten her.”
He returned and said to me, “She expects you, I will go with you.”
I went up to her and said, “I am your brother; come, do not be afraid to kiss me.” She came to me, crying with joy. I said to her, “I have two letters from my father, dated from the time of Marengo.”
Then the master said to me, “That was a hot day.”— “Ah, true enough, sir.” But she said, “Our elder brother is here in Paris.”—“Is it possible ?”—“Yes, he is coming to see me to-morrow at noon.”—“What a piece of luck! I am in the Consul's guard; I will run back for roll-call and return to see him. I shall be back in an hour.”
I thanked the master and hastened to the roll-call; I returned as quickly as possible, but my brother had already arrived. My sister had told him that I was in the Consul's guard. “Beware,” said he to her, “of making the acquaintance of a soldier; do not bring shame upon us, we have had trouble enough already.”—“ But, my dear,” said she, “he is coming back after the roll-call and you will see him.”
She saw me as I was returning and made him conceal himself. I said, “Well, sister, has not my brother Pierre come yet ?”—“Yes,” she replied, “but he says you are not my brother.”—“Indeed,” said I, “very well, tell him that it was he who carried me away from Druyes to Étais, where he hired me out, when he had a sore arm.”
At this he rushed to me, and we were all three locked in one another's arms, weeping for joy so loudly that every one in the house hastened to see the poor creatures who were now restored to one another after seventeen years of separation.
The joy and grief were so intense that my brother and sister could not sustain it; I lost them both. I buried my poor sister at the end of six weeks; she fell sick a week after we met, and we were obliged to take her to a hospital, where she died. I accompanied her remains to their last resting-place. My brother could not survive her loss. I sent him back to the country, where he died also. I lost them both within the space of three months. I have never recovered from that trouble.
Having done all I could for them I returned to my military duties, and told my sorrows to my captain, who pitied me sincerely. I was promptly provided with a uniform and drilled. I continued to be skilful as before in the use of arms and in fencing; I was put under instructors who pushed me forward rapidly. At the end of a year, there was a contest, and I was applauded for my skill and my modesty in yielding the point of honour. Later I went to the fencing-school in the Rue de Richelieu for an assault-at-arms with some very skilful young men, and there I showed what I could do. The masters embraced me and skilful pupils invited me out. Our own fencing-master overwhelmed me with attentions, and said to them, “Don't let him deceive you, you have seen nothing; he has concealed his skill and behaved like an angel. We could make a master of him, if he wished, but he said, ‘No, I will continue to be a pupil.’ That's what he said.”
Every day I went to the drills so as to learn the movements of the guard, and I was not long in becoming acquainted with them; at the end of a month I was passed as efficient and put into the battalion. The discipline was not severe; we turned out to the roll-call every morning in our linen shirts and breeches (with no stockings on our legs) and then went back to our beds. But a colonel, named Dorsenne, came to us from Egypt, covered with wounds; he was just the sort of soldier needed to discipline and drill an efficient guard. In a year's time we might have served as a model for the whole army. He was so severe that he made the most unruly soldier tremble; he reformed all abuses. He might have been held up as an example for all our generals, both for courage and bearing. A finer looking soldier was not to be seen on the battle-field. I have seen him one moment covered with dirt by shells, and the next he would be up again saying, “It is nothing, grenadiers, your general is near you.”
We were informed that the First Consul was to inspect our barracks, and that we must be on the lookout for him. But he took us by surprise and found us in our beds; he was accompanied by his favourite general, Lannes. A misfortune had just happened to us; some grenadiers had committed suicide, no one knew why. The Consul went through all the rooms and finally came to my bedside. My comrade, who was six feet four inches tall, stretched himself out on seeing the Consul beside our bed; his feet stuck out of the bedstead more than a foot. The Consul thought that there were two grenadiers in a line, and came to the head of our bed to assure himself of the fact, and passed his hand along the body of my comrade, to be sure he was not mistaken. “Why!” said he, “these bedsteads are too short for my grenadiers. Do you see, Lannes? All the beds of my guard must be changed. Make a note of it, and have new bedsteads made for the whole guard; these will do for the garrison.” So my bedfellow caused an outlay of more than a million francs, and the whole guard had new beds seven feet long.
The Consul delivered a severe lecture to all our officers, and looked into everything; he had a piece of bread brought to him. “That is not the right kind,” said he. “I pay for white bread, I wish to have it every day. Do you understand, Lannes? Send your orderly officer, and order the quartermaster to come to me.” To us he said— .
“I will review you on Sunday; I want to see you. There are malcontents among you. I will hear your complaints.”
Then they returned to the Tuileries. In the order that he sent for the Sunday review, Colonel Dorsenne recommended that nothing should be neglected in the uniforms of the men. The whole store of clothing was turned upside down; all the old uniforms were renovated, and he inspected us at ten o'clock. He was so stern that he made the officers tremble. At eleven o'clock we set out for the Tuileries; at noon the Consul came down to review us mounted on a white horse, which, it was said, Louis XVI had ridden. This horse was of great beauty, with a tremendous mane and tail; he marched through the ranks with the step of a man he was a magnificent looking horse.
The Consul made us open ranks; he walked slowly and received many petitions; he took them himself and then handed them to General Lannes. He stopped wherever he saw a soldier present arms, and spoke to him. He was pleased with our appearance and ordered us to march past. We found some casks of wine at the barracks, and a quart of it was distributed to each man. The petitions were almost all granted, and the contentment was general.