THE non-commissioned officers and men who had been appointed to receive the cross were summoned, and there were eighteen hundred of us in the guard. The ceremony took place in the Invalides on June I4, 1804. We were stationed in the following order: to the right on entering, the guard occupied the steps all the way to the top, the men of the rest of the army were on the opposite steps, and the disabled men filled the back part of the dome up to the ceiling. The corps of officers were on the floor; the whole chapel was full.
The Consul arrived at noon, mounted on a horse covered with gold; his stirrups were of solid gold. This elegant horse was a present from the Grand Turk; it was necessary to set a guard over him, so as to prevent anyone from approaching him (the saddle was covered with diamonds). He entered. The most profound silence reigned in the chapel. He passed before the whole corps of officers, and seated himself on the throne, which was to the right in the back part of the dome. Josephine was opposite in a box to the left, Eugene at the foot of the throne holding a pin-cushion stuck full of pins, and Murat had a case filled with crosses. The ceremony began with the officers of high rank, who were called up according to their degrees. After all the grand crosses had been distributed, one was sent to Josephine, as she sat in her box, and was presented to her on a salver by Eugene and Murat.
Then they called out, “Jean-Roch Coignet!” I was on the second step. I passed in front of my comrades, and marched across the hall to the foot of the throne. Here I was stopped by Beauharnais, who said to me, “You mustn't go any farther.” But Murat answered him, “Prince, the candidates for the cross of the Legion of Honour are equals; he has been called, he can pass up.” I mounted the steps to the throne. I presented myself straight as an arrow before the Consul, who said that I was a brave defender of my country, and that I had given proof of it. At the words, “Accept thy Consul's cross,” I lowered my right hand, which was at the salute against my fur cap, and took my cross by the ribbon. Not knowing what to do with it, I was about to move backwards down the steps of the throne when the Consul called me up to him again, took my cross, passed it through the button-hole of my coat and fastened it there with a pin taken from the cushion which Beauharnais held. I descended from the throne, and as I passed by the staff which occupied the floor, I met my colonel, M. Lepreux, and Major Merle, who were awaiting their decorations. They both embraced me before the whole corps of officers, and I went out of the Invalides.
I could scarcely make my way, the crowd pressed so eagerly around me to see my cross. Some beautiful women who could get near enough to me to touch my cross asked permission to kiss me. I reached the bridge of the Revolution, where I found my old regiment, which was in line on the bridge. Compliments were showered upon me from all sides. I finally passed through the crowd and entered the garden of the Tuileries, where I had great difficulty in making my way to barracks.
When I came to the door the sentry presented arms. I turned back to see if there was an officer near, and found that I was all alone. “Is it to me that you are presenting arms?”—”Yes,” he answered, “we are ordered to present arms before those decorated with the cross of the Legion of Honour.” I took his hand and shook it heartily, and asked him his name and his company. Then forcing him to take the five francs I put in his hand, I said, “I invite you to breakfast with me as soon as you are off guard.” Lord! how hungry I was! I ordered ten litres of wine for my mess, and said to the cook, “That is for my comrades. “The corporal saw the bottles and said, “Who sent up this wine?”—“Coignet ordered it; he was nearly starved. I gave him his supper at once, for the lieutenant had come for him; they went off arm in arm, and he told me to tell you to drink his health.”
My lieutenant, who had seen me receive the first decoration, had kept his eye upon me, and had caught up with me. He said very kindly, “You must spend the whole evening with me. We will go and see the illuminations, and afterwards we will go to the Palais Royal and have a cup of coffee. The roll will not be called till midnight, and we need not return till we choose; I will take the responsibility.”
We walked about in the garden for an hour. He took me to the Café Borel, at the end of the Palais Royal, and made me go down into a large cellar, where there were a great many people. They crowded round us. The owner of the cafe came to the lieutenant and said, “I will order anything you like for you. Members of the Legion of Honour are entertained gratis.” The big citizens who heard M. Borel, first stared at us and then took possession of us. Punch flowed freely. My lieutenant told them that I was the first man decorated, and then all of them rushed up to me crying out, “Here's to him!” I was filled with confusion. They said to me, “Drink, brave fellow!”—“I cannot drink, gentlemen, I thank you.” Everybody made much of us, we were invited to sit down at every table. At last we thanked the host and bade him farewell, and at midnight we returned to barracks. My lieutenant was as sober as I was; we took very little to drink. How delightful that evening had been to me! I had never known anything like it before.
Next morning my lieutenant took me to see our captain, and he embraced us both and gave us a drink of brandy. “At noon,” said he, “you will go with the lieutenant and be presented to M. de Lacepede, as the man who received the first decoration; that is the order.”
We took a cab. On reaching the court we mounted the great stairway, then the folding-doors opened and we were announced. The chancellor appeared; he had a long, big nose. My lieutenant told him that I had been the first man decorated. He embraced me and guided my hand while I wrote all the letters of my name in the great register. He accompanied us to the door of the great stairway. All the guard came in carriages to the chancellor's office. I paid a visit to the brother of my colonel at the Porte St. Denis, where I purchased some nankeen to make short breeches. Long stockings and silver garter-buckles were the rule for a summer uniform.
Nothing could be handsomer than that uniform. When we were on dress parade we wore a blue coat with white lapels sloped low down on the breast, a white dimity waistcoat, gaiters of the same, short breeches, silver buckles on the shoes and breeches, a double cravat, white underneath and black on the outside, with a narrow edge of white showing at the top. In undress, we wore a blue coat, white dimity waistcoat, nankeen breeches, and seamless white cotton stockings. In addition to all this we wore our hair brushed out in front like pigeon's wings, and powdered, and a queue six inches long, cut off at the end like a brush and tied with a black worsted ribbon, with ends exactly two inches long. Add to this the bearskin cap and its long plume, and you have the summer uniform of the imperial guard. But one thing of which I can give no real idea is the extreme neatness which was required of us. When we left barracks the orderlies inspected us, and if there was a speck of dust on our shoes or a bit of powder on the collar of our coats we were sent back. We were splendid to look at, but abominably uncomfortable.
When I was ready to present myself to General Hulin, he received me and made me a present of a piece of the ribbon of the Legion of Honour. The next day I wanted to go to see M. Champromain, a wood merchant living near the Jardin des Plantes. I went along the Rue St. Honoré when I reached the Palais Royal I met a superb looking man, who stopped me to look at my cross and asked me to do him the kindness to take a cup of coffee with him. I refused, but he insisted so that I allowed myself to be tempted. He took me to the Cafe de la Régence, opposite the Palais Royal, which occupies the right side of the square. When we reached that fine cafe he ordered two cups of black coffee. As for me I was looking at the woman behind the counter, who was very beautiful. I gazed at her with all the strength of my twenty-seven years. The gentleman said to me, “Your coffee will get cold, drink it.” And as soon as I had done so he rose and said to me, “I am in a hurry.” Then he paid his bill and went out. As soon as I had finished my cup I got up, but he had disappeared.
As I was going out of the café I fell on the pavement. My whole body was contorted with pain. I was drawn double. I had fearful cramp in my bowels. The people in the cafe ran to my assistance, had me taken to our hospital at Gros-Caillou, and I was treated at once. They made me drink all sorts of stuff, warmed my bed, and sent for M. Suze, the head physician, an excellent man who was badly scarred by the small-pox and blind in one eye. He saw at once that I had been poisoned, and ordered a bath and frictions with some kind of oil that smelt. An attendant in his shirt-sleeves rubbed my stomach with all his strength, and another was at hand to relieve him, and thus it was day and night for eight days. But still the cramp never left me.
They were obliged to put cupping glasses on my stomach, to draw a blister, and when the fire went out under them they cut the skin with a penknife. Then they put a glass bowl turned upside down on my stomach to pump the blood. In this way I became so exhausted that one could almost see through me. And the attendants continued to rub me night and day, and changed my clothing four times a day on account of the profuse sweats. Every morning I gave twenty-four sous to my two attendants for their kind care. M. Suze came three times a day, and they cupped me constantly and applied all sorts of remedies, but nothing had any effect. Nothing passed through my bowels. My condition was reported to the First Consul, who ordered two physicians to attend me during the night, and attendants night and day. An officer of the regular service came every day to ask after me. Every possible care was lavished on me. An order was given to allow all who wished to see me to enter without permits, and my greatest consolation was gazing upon my cross which was placed near me. I endured all sorts of suffering in the hope of being cured.
I remained in this condition forty days. A consultation of physicians was held and Baron Larrey was called in. They put me on a mattress on a table well covered up, and he said to them, “Gentlemen, this brave soldier is full of pluck; consult and tell me your opinion.” They consulted together and I could not hear what they said. M. Larrey said, “Have a bucket of ice and some lemonade brought, and we will make him drink it; if that passes through him we will see what can be done.”
A large silver goblet of lemonade well sweetened was brought me; I drank it and did not vomit it up. The doctors watched by me and half an hour after they gave me a second. M. Larrey said to them, “I have saved the upper part, now you save the lower.” They decided to make me take a remedy of their own concoction, and it had a good effect. I produced three lumps, one about the size of a walnut, and the others not quite so large, and the first was full of verdigris. These were carefully put aside, and the doctors remained two hours longer with me. M. Larrey said to me, “You are saved. I will come to see you; “ and he did come to see me three times. I owe my life to him and M. Suze. I was well cared for; preserves were given me, and when I was able to eat I had some excellent chocolate and four ounces of Malaga wine which I could not drink. I gave it to the sickest man in the room. After the end of another week fried fish was given me and mutton and a bottle of burgundy. I gave half of it to my comrades. The preserves came from outside, I know not from whose kind hand. I received visits every day. M. Morin, who had a chateau in my native country, heard that I was at the hospital, and came to see me, and offered to take me to stay at his chateau till I recuperated. I accepted his offer gratefully. “You will find plenty of good milk there,” said he, “and I will give orders that you shall be well taken care of.”
The faithful care of the physicians and nurses saved me from the revenge which had been attempted upon me by one who could not wreak it upon the First Consul himself; for it was one of the spies of Cadoudal who had watched his opportunity to kill me. When I was convalescent I was laid on a sofa near the window to get the fresh air. M. Suze had my hair combed and told the nurse that he did not wish to have it cut off. It required a great deal of time and powder, and the attendant had to put on a mask. There was a double glass to the mask so as to prevent inhaling the poison, my hair was so filled with the verdigris. This operation occupied a whole hour. I gave the attendant three francs for having preserved my hair. In those days pigeon wings were worn, and we had to put our hair in curl papers at night, and in the morning the hairdresser came to the guard-house to arrange our hair. At noon the guard going on duty looked very differently from the guard coming in. We were greatly relieved when the order came to cut off all the queues. It created quite a revolution in the army, particularly among the cavalry.
My convalescence was apparent. I told M. Suze that I felt very well and that I wanted a permit to try the air of my native region, as I was invited to go to a chateau in that country till I was entirely well again, that the milk there would be very good for me. “I will give you three months' leave if you wish,” said he, “but promise me to be prudent.”—”I swear I will.”
He gave me a pass, and on my return to the barracks I presented it with my sick leave to the captain, who had me paid off. I started off dressed in a new uniform at the expense of the government, and went by coach to Auxerre, where I lodged at Montfort's, at the Paris gate. I remembered a relative of mine there, Father Toussaint Armancier. I sent for him and asked him if he had ever heard what had become of my little brother whom I had not seen since he was six years old. He answered, “I know where he is. He is at Beauvoir, living with Thibault the miller.”—”Please send for him. This is good news indeed! “
Next day he came and threw himself into my arms. He could scarcely contain himself for joy at seeing me so fine, all dressed in uniform and wearing the cross. “My brother,” said he, “I am so glad.”—”I am going to visit our native place,” said I, “and if you wish it I will pick you up on my way back to Paris and put you in business there. I have some good friends in Paris.”—”All right,” said he, “come for me and I will go with you.”—”I promise you I will; make your preparations. Have you any money?”—”Yes,” said he, “I have seven hundred francs.”—”That is a proof of your good character, my dear fellow.” Then we dined together like two children who had just found each other.
The next day, after breakfast, we went our ways. On my arrival at Courson, I was stopped by a corporal of the gendarmes, named Trubert, who asked me if I was under orders. I answered, “Look at my cross and my uniform; they are my passport.” He was completely dumbfounded. I went on to Druyes. On Saturday night I reached M. Morin's château of Bouloy, where I found I was expected. As I had come up the valley no one had seen me. The next morning being Sunday, I dressed myself in full uniform to go to mass. I asked where I could get a seat in one of the stalls. One was shown me next the mayor, M. Trémeau, who is still living, and I went into the choir. I sat down in the seat pointed out for me, and the mayor seated himself on my left. I bowed to him. “Is it really you, Coignet?” —”Yes, sir.”—”I was expecting you. I received a letter from M. Morin announcing your arrival.”— “Thank you. I shall have the honour of paying you a visit after mass.”—”I shall expect you.”
Everybody came over to the choir to see the fine soldier with his decoration. I recognized my stepmother in front of me, and my father who stood with his back towards me. He sang among the choristers. I left the church before the mass was quite over, and went to my father's house. The door was not shut. I remained standing, and my father came and found me waiting for him in the middle of the room. I went up to him to embrace him; he pressed me in his arms, and I returned the embrace. My stepmother came forward also to kiss me. “Do not come near me,” said I to her. “I do not like Judas kisses. Go away, I have a horror of you.” —”Come, my son,” said my father, “be seated. Why did you not come to your father's house?”—”I did not wish to receive your hospitality in the presence of your wife whom I detest. Strangers were kind enough to offer me a roof, and I accepted it. I am going now to see the mayor, and I will come to see you to-morrow at noon, if you will permit me.”—”I shall be on the lookout for you.”
I started for the village and found a crowd awaiting me along the way, who called out, “There he is, good M. Coignet; he has not wasted his time, he has won that fine cross! The good God has blessed him on account of all the suffering his stepmother made him endure!”—”Let me pass,” said I to them. “I will see you all, my good friends. Allow me to go on to the city to see M. Trémeau.”
I was received with open arms by M. Trémeau, who said to me, “I have ordered a seat for you at my table, and I dare say you would enjoy a day's shooting with myself and my brothers; you carry your license on your breast.”—”Thank you; I will come to see you.” What balm to my soul this kindly welcome was!
I returned to my inn, and the next day I went down to my father's. I said to him, “I have at last found my little brother, after being so unfortunate as to lose both the others, one of whom died not far from you without receiving any kind of care from you. This is another of your wife's terrible acts, and you, poor weak man, closed your door upon your eldest son. You must now settle accounts with us; you know that you owe us three thousand francs.”
My stepmother, who was seated beside the fire, said to me, “How could we pay you all that money?”— “I cannot permit such a wretch of woman as you are to have anything to say in what concerns me. This matter is altogether between me and my father. If it were not for the respect I owe him, I would knock your head off your shoulders; you will never pull my nose with the tweezers again! Miserable wretch, are you not ashamed of having taken those two innocent creatures into the woods and left them there to the mercy of God? Look at your crime, you serpent! If the fear of God did not restrain me, I should kill you. “My father was very pale. I was trembling from the outburst I had permitted myself to make before him, but I felt that I had gained some satisfaction from it.
All through the country they talked of nothing but me. I received visits from all sides, which I returned, and was everywhere received with friendly kindness. I received a letter from M. de la Bergerie, prefect of the Yonne, written by command of Marshal Davoust, who had arrived at Auxerre, requesting me to meet the marshal and take part in a wolf-hunt in the forest of Frétoy, near Courson. I went, accompanied by the Messrs. Trémeau, who very kindly told me that to save my uniform I ought to go in hunting dress. I looked like a real huntsman with my ribbon of the Legion of Honour. The marshal recognized me immediately. “Here is my grenadier,” said he to the prefect; “you can follow the hunt all day long.” We were handed over to the care of the gamekeepers, and the beaters set off at a given signal. Two wolves and some foxes were killed. Shooting deer was forbidden, but we were allowed to shoot all other game in the evening. The hunt was over at four o'clock, and the Messrs. Trémeau and I were invited to dinner. The dinner was a splendid affair. I was triumphantly received. The marshal said to the prefect, “This is the smallest of my grenadiers. Now make yourself thoroughly happy in your native place.” We left at eleven o'clock in the evening, and the Messrs. Trémeau were charmed with the cordial welcome of the prefect and the marshal; our game-bags were well filled with hares.
I passed my time shooting. I went to see my father, who invited me to go shooting with him. I could not refuse. When we reached the rendezvous, he said to me, “Here is the trail of three deer which must have spent the night in this underwood; they cannot be far off. Come, I will station you. Hold on to my dog, and at the end of a quarter of an hour, walk on right ahead of you. As soon as I fire let him loose.” I started off, and about half way I heard two gunshots. I let the dog loose, and heard my father shout, “This way.” I ran to him, and to my astonishment saw two deer upon the ground. “I have killed two of them, and would have killed the third if I had not been in such a hurry. Let us go to the farm. They will come and fetch them in; but first each of us must have a hare. I know where to find them.” In an hour's time the hares were in our game-bags. “That is enough,” said I, “let us go back.”
I went the round of all my friends and said good-bye before going to Beauvoir to see Father Thibault, and get my young brother to take him with me to Paris. I let no one know when I was to leave except my comrade Allard, and I started off at two o'clock in the morning.
When I reached Paris, I immediately placed my brother with a wine-merchant; I then returned to barracks, where my comrades welcomed me heartily. I drew my whole pay and three months of my pension, as member of the Legion; this gave me two hundred francs, and quite set me up. Being exempt from service for a month by order of the captain, I was completely restored to health, and ready for the next campaign.
It was said that preparations were being made for a descent upon England. Hammocks were made for the whole guard, with bedclothes for each. The camp of Boulogne was in great commotion, and we were pretty lively at Paris. But our turn came to take part in movements by land and sea, after grand reviews and drills in the plain of St. Denis, where we were obliged to be out in the rain all day long. The barrels of our guns filled with water when we carried arms. The “great man” never budged; the water ran down his sides; he did not let us off even for half an hour. His hat drooped upon his shoulders, his generals looked discomforted; but he took no notice of any of it. At last he made us march past, and when we reached Courbevoie we were paddling about like ducks in the yard; but we found wine there, and so we thought no more about it. The next day, the order was read that we should hold ourselves in readiness to march. “Make up your knapsacks,” said our officers, “and say good-bye to every one, for only the veterans will be left.”
The order came; we had to put all the bedding into store, and sleep on the straw, so as to be ready to leave for Boulogne. We camped at the port of Ambleteuse, where a fine camp was formed; General Oudinot was in command of us with twelve thousand grenadiers, who formed a part of the reserve force. And every day we drilled and drilled. We were brigaded for training in embarcation. We went quite a long way to sea, in a line, in two hundred pinnaces. The whole of this little fleet, divided into sections, was commanded by a good admiral, who was on a fine frigate in the middle.
For twenty days we handled artillery, and were both gunners and sailors. The sailors, gunners, and soldiers all moved as one man; there was perfect harmony on board the fleet. At night there was the cry of “All's well!” and the last man answered, “All's well, ay, ay!” In the morning, speaking trumpets asked the news of the night. “What news on board your ship?”—”Two grenadiers jumped overboard.”—”Were they drowned?” —”Yes,” was the answer, “yes, captain.”—”Very good.” (He said “very good “ merely to indicate that he had understood).
While I was at the camp at Ambleteuse, I received a visit from my old bedfellow, from the company to which I had first been admitted as a member of the guard. I have already said that he was the tallest of all the grenadiers; he was, moreover, a jolly fellow, good natured and full of fun, and somewhat of a joker. I cannot remember his name, I only remember that he was the son of an innkeeper in the neighbourhood of Meudon. He had left the guard in consequence of a singular adventure. One day we were on duty at the Tuileries; he was stationed at the door opening into the Consul's own chamber. When the Consul came along at night on his way to bed, he stopped dumbfounded. There was more than sufficient cause for his astonishment. Imagine a man six feet four inches tall, wearing a bear-skin cap eighteen inches high and a plume at least a foot higher than the cap. He called me his dwarf, and when he held out his arm horizontally, I could walk under without touching it. The First Consul was still shorter than I, and I think he was obliged to raise his head higher than usual to see my comrade's face. After examining him a moment, he saw that, moreover, he was perfectly formed. “Would you like to be a drum-major?” said he to the man. —”Yes, Consul.”—”Very well, go and fetch your officer.”
At these words the grenadier put down his musket and rushed off, then he stopped and came back to get it again, saying that a good soldier should never leave his musket. “Never mind,” said the First Consul, “I will watch it, and wait for you.” A minute after, my comrade arrived at our post. The officer, surprised at seeing him, asked roughly what had happened. “Parbleu!” replied he with his bantering air, “I had stood guard long enough. I have left some one on duty in my place.”—”Who may that be?” cried the officer.—”The little corporal, to be sure.”—”Come, none of this ill-timed joking.”—”I am not joking; he ought to take his turn mounting guard; besides, he is asking for you; come to him, he sent me for you.”
The officer's astonishment gave place to terror, for Bonaparte rarely sent for the officers to come to him except to give them a scolding. This one of ours went out in considerable anxiety, following his guide. They found the First Consul walking up and down the vestibule, beside the musket. “Sir,” said he to the officer, “does this soldier bear a good character?”—”Yes, general.” —”Then I appoint him drum-major in my cousin's regiment. I will pay him three francs a day from my private purse, and the regiment will give him as much more. Give orders to have him relieved from duty, and let him start off to-morrow.”
No sooner said than done. My comrade immediately entered upon his new duties, and when he came to see us at Ambleteuse, he had on a prodigiously fine uniform, all covered with gold lace, as handsome as that of the drum-major of the guard. He got permission for me to leave camp, took me to Boulogne and treated me to a dinner.
That evening I left him to return to Ambleteuse. I was alone; as I was going along I met two grenadiers of the line, who wanted to arrest me. At that time the soldiers of the guard were exposed to frequent attacks. There was in the camp of Boulogne what was called the “company of the moon,” which was composed of brigands and wild fellows who took advantage of the night hours to plunder those of us whom they found alone, steal their watches and silver buckles, and throw them into the sea. It was found necessary to forbid our returning to the camp at night unless there were several in a party. I got out of my difficulty by a piece of audacity. I had my sabre and my seven years in the fencing-school. I drew sabre and defied my assailants. They thought it prudent to let me pass; but if I had shown any signs of weakness I should have been lost, and my drum-major's dinner would have cost me very dear.
One day Messrs. the English came in a large squadron to pay us a visit. A seventy-four gunner was insolent enough to come near the shore. She brought her broadside to bear, and sent a volley of balls into our camp. We had some big mortars on the height; a sergeant of grenadiers asked permission to fire on this ship, saying that he would guarantee to put a leak in her the first or second shot. “Go to work then. What is your name?” said the Consul.—”Despienne.”—”Let us see a specimen of your skill.”
The first shell passed over it. “A miss,” said our little corporal.—“All right,” said the sergeant. “Watch this one. “He took aim, and sent a shell into the middle of the ship. There was a shout of joy. “I will make you lieutenant in my artillery,” said he to Despienne. Then the English fired blank cartridges calling for aid, for their ship was on fire. They leaped into our boats as well as into their own. Our little flotilla pursued their big ships. It was a sight to see our little terriers after their great hounds. The English tried to return to the charge, but they were roughly received. We were ready for them. Our little boats made havoc of them. Every one of our shots was a hit, and their broadsides passed over our pinnaces. We were ordered to return to port so as to make a general demonstration all along the line. Never had there been seen such a sight as a hundred and fifty thousand men firing by battalions; the whole shore shook.
All the preparations were complete for the expedition, and we were to sail one Thursday evening, so as to reach there on the Friday. But at ten o'clock that night we were ordered to disembark in marching-order, and start for Pont de Briques where we were to leave our blankets. There were shouts of joy. In an hour the whole of the artillery was on the march for the town of Arras. Never was there such a terrible march. We had not a moment for sleep, marching by platoons all day and all night, and at last holding on to each other to prevent falling. Those who fell could not be wakened. Some fell into the ditches. Blows with the flat of the sabre had no effect upon them. The bands played and the drums beat; nothing got the better of sleep. The nights were terrible. I was on the right of a section. About midnight I fell down the bank at the side of the road. I turned over and over, and went rolling down, never stopping till I reached an open field. I did not let go my musket, but I rolled into the other world. My brave captain sent someone down to look after me. I was badly bruised. They took my knapsack and musket. I was now thoroughly awake.
When we reached the heights of Saverne, the sleepers had to be put into carriages. At last we arrived at Strassburg, where we found the Emperor, who reviewed us the next day and distributed crosses. Two nights' rest put us in good condition. We crossed the Rhine and marched by long stages upon Augsburg, and thence on to Ulm, where we found a considerable army which we had to drive beyond a rapid river, before taking possession of a convent on an impregnable height.
Marshal Ney, standing in the water up to his horse's belly, had the bridge repaired under a hail of grapeshot. The sappers were cut down, and still the intrepid Ney did not budge. As soon as the first truss was placed, the grenadiers and light cavalry crossed over to support the sappers, and the marshal came galloping up to Prince Murat, took him by the hand and said, “Prince, the bridge is finished. I need your support.”—”I will start at once,” said he, “with my division of dragoons.”
Off they went at a gallop. The weather was so terrible that the bridge was flooded; it disappeared from sight. We were stationed near this river in a meadow; the water rose rapidly, it was soon up to our knees. The guard had to paddle about like ducks. Every one began to laugh and jump about in the water. I had my pot in my knapsack; it was not upside down, so it got full of water, and I poured it over my comrades' legs. The barrels of our guns were full also. We could not change our position; the whole of the marshal's corps were waiting for the water to fall so that they might cross; the line troops were in the mud; we were in the best place. At last the waters subsided. We could see the planks of the bridge. The troops pulled themselves out of the mud and washed their legs as they were crossing the bridge. Our ducks in their turn came up out of the meadow, and the columns arrived at the foot of that tremendous mountain, defended by very considerable forces. But nothing could resist Marshal Ney. On reaching the village of Elchingen, he attacked it, one house after another, and there were gardens surrounded by walls, over which we had to climb. This extraordinary village was taken at the point of the bayonet, and our columns reached the convent which overlooked the town.
The Emperor then marched us off at quickstep to complete the overthrow of General Mack. The Austrians fought with determination. Behind this village were some scantily-wooded fields, where we could manoeuvre, and the chain of mountains extended from the convent to the front of Ulm. We did not leave the enemy at peace for a moment. Murat covered himself with glory by his splendid charges, and Ney did not stop till he was in front of Ulm. The Emperor surrounded the town on all sides, and gave us at last time to dry ourselves. As ill-luck would have it, a beautiful house belonging to one of the citizens took fire. It was impossible to save it. “You shall pay for it,” said the Emperor angrily. “I will give six hundred francs and you shall give a day's pay. Let that sum be immediately paid over to the owner of the house.” Our officers made wry faces at this, but were obliged to submit, and the guard owns a house in that town. The proprietor did a good day's work, for he received a considerable sum.
The Emperor summoned General Mack to surrender, which he did on the 19th of October. Orders were given to march next morning at five o'clock; the whole guard went to the foot of the Michelberg, in front of Ulm. The Emperor stationed himself on the top of this sugar-loaf and had a good fire made; it was there that he burned his grey cloak. He was surrounded by the whole of his guard, and fifty pieces of cannon were turned upon the town. I was on sentry-go on the top of the hill near the Emperor, who was talking to Count Hulin, general of the foot grenadiers. Suddenly we saw an endless column file out of the town of Ulm, and march up in front of the Emperor in a plain at the foot of the mountain. All the soldiers had hung their cartridge boxes on their knapsacks ready to take them off when they reached the place appointed to disarm; they threw their arms and cartridge-boxes in a pile as they passed. General Mack came at their head to surrender his sword to the Emperor. This the Emperor refused to accept (all the officers and generals retained their swords and knapsacks), and he talked a long time with the superior officers.
The evacuation went on for four or five hours (there were twenty-seven thousand of them), and the city was full of sick and wounded. We made our entrance into Ulm amid the shouts of the whole populace; the officers were sent off to their own country on parole not to take up arms against France, and the Emperor made a proclamation to us. The next day after the surrender of Ulm, Napoleon set out for Augsburg with the whole of his guard; they made forced marches so as to reach Vienna. The soldiers were required to march eighteen or twenty leagues a day. They used to say: “Our Emperor makes war not with our arms but with our legs.”
When the Emperor learned that Prince Ferdinand had escaped from Ulm with his cavalry, he sent Prince Murat with Oudinot's grenadiers in pursuit of them. We came up with them ten leagues down the road; they had only wagons, cannons, caissons, and cavalry; they had carried off half of their arms with four thousand horses; the roads were filled with prisoners.
We started at midnight to join the advance-guard, and were obliged to pass by the troops who were already marching along the sides of the road. We had to take the middle, in the mud, and so pass columns two leagues long. Our grenadiers took enormous strides, and passed two soldiers at each step; as for me, with my short legs, I trotted along, to keep up with my comrades. The Emperor slept in his carriage, and when he stopped we had to mount guard, and the army corps passed on.
When the troops had gone on fifteen leagues, the Emperor would start again; we had to put our knapsacks on our backs, and eat as we went along, all in the darkness. We could see neither town nor village. Fortunately the Russians waited for us. Oudinot's grenadiers, with Marshal Lannes and Murat, made their acquaintance; this gave us time to reach Lintz, a town a little to the left of the road to Vienna. This city has, at its back, some high mountains, at the foot of which flows the Danube, among the rocks; it is so shut in that it has cut its way through the rocks. The torrent makes one tremble. We stayed there two days; certain princes sent from Vienna arrived, and then an aide-de-camp of Marshal Lannes, announcing that the Russians were defeated. The next day, the Emperor started off at a gallop; he was sullen. “All does not go well,” said our chiefs; “he is angry.”
He gave orders to start at once for St. Polten. Just before reaching there, to the left, there are mountains which are covered with trees to a considerable height; here an army corps was camped. Thence we marched to Schoenbrunn, the residence of the Emperor of Austria. The palace is magnificent, having forests surrounded by walls and filled with game. We remained here a few days to rest; carriages came out from Vienna. Overtures were made to Napoleon, to induce him to spare the town. The different army corps came in from all directions; that of Marshal Mortier had suffered a great deal, and was placed in reserve to recuperate. The Emperor lost no time; he gave orders that the guard should parade in full dress, and rode at its head through that great city, amid the acclamations of a populace full of joy at the sight of such a splendid corps. We passed through without stopping, and came to the bridges, a little distance from the faubourgs, in a woody place, where we were somewhat concealed. The great wooden bridge was superb; we said to each other, “How is it that these Austrians have allowed us to pass over on this bridge and have not blown it up?” Our officers told us that this was managed by a stratagem of Prince Murat, Marshal Lannes, and the officers of the engineers.
We slept in villages completely devastated by a terrible season of snow. The Emperor went in front; he visited the outposts, and overlooked the army corps, and then went on to Brunn, in Moravia, where he established his headquarters. We could not catch up with him; this was one of our most terrible marches, we had to go forty leagues to rejoin him. We arrived there on the third day, utterly broken down with fatigue. This city was beautiful, and here we had time to rest. We were near Austerlitz. The Emperor went out every day to make reconnaissances along the line, and returned satisfied. He seemed delighted; his pinches of snuff took effect (this was always a proof of his contentment), and with his hands behind his back he went about talking to every one.
We received orders to go forward, near the Pratzen mountains. In front of us there was a river to cross, but it was so frozen that it presented no obstacle. We camped to the left of the road, over the Pratzen mountains, with Oudinot's grenadiers on the right and the cavalry behind us.
On the first of December, at two o'clock, Napoleon came with his marshals to visit our lines. We were eating jam made from quinces, of which we had found tubs full in the village, and had made tarts. The Emperor laughed. “Ah!” said he, “I see you are eating preserves, don't get up. You must put new flints in your guns; to-morrow morning you will need them. Be ready.”
Some horse grenadiers came by with twelve fat pigs they had found; we charged them with our sabres and took all their pigs. The Emperor laughed. He divided them; six for us and six for the horse grenadiers. The generals took a pint of good blood, and we had some good broiled pork.
That evening the Emperor came out of his tent, and mounting his horse, started off with his escort to visit the outposts. It was twilight, and the horse-grenadiers carried four lighted torches. This was the signal for a charming sight; the whole guard took up handfuls of straw from their bivouacs and set them on fire. Holding a bunch in each hand, the men lighted them one from the other, and all cried out, “Vive l'Empereur!” and tossed them in the air. The whole army corps took it up, and I am sure that two hundred thousand flares were lighted. The bands played and the drums beat to arms. The Russians, from their heights, more than a hundred feet above us, could see seven army corps, and seven lines of fire in front of them.
The next morning early, all the bandsmen were ordered to be at their posts, on pain of severe punishment. It was then the 2nd of December. The Emperor started out very early in the morning to visit the outposts and see the position of the Russian army; he returned and took a position on a plateau, above where he had passed the night. He placed us, with Oudinot's grenadiers, in line of battle behind him. All his marshals were with him; he sent them to their several posts. The army ascended this height, in order to descend to the country below, cross a river and come to the Pratzen mountain, where the Russians were waiting for us as quietly as possible. When the columns had passed by, the Emperor ordered us to follow them up. There were twenty-five thousand of us stout fellows with our bear-skin caps.
Our battalions mounted the hill carrying arms, and when within reach, saluted the first line with fire by battalions, and then crossed bayonets with the first line of the Russians, beating a charge. Contrary to custom, the Emperor had ordered that the bands should remain in position in the centre of each battalion. Our band was at full strength, with its chief, an old trooper of at least sixty years, at its head. They played a song we all knew well.
On va leur percer le flanc,
Ran, ran, ran, rantanplan, tirelire,
Rantanplan tirelire en plan,
On va leur percer le flanc,
Que nous allons rire!
Ran, tan, plan, tirelire,
Que nous allons rire,’
While this air was played, the drums, under the direction of M. Sénot, their major, an accomplished man, beat a charge loud enough to break their drumheads in. The drums and music mingled together. It was enough to make a paralytic move forward!
When we reached the summit of the plateau we were only separated from the enemy by the remnant of the corps which had been fighting in front of us since morning. Our right wing suffered heavy losses. We saw that they could not ascend that steep mountain. The whole of the guard of the Russian Emperor was massed on this height. But we were strongly supported on the right. Their cavalry charged upon a battalion of the 4th, and strewed the field with their dead bodies. The Emperor perceived this, and ordered General Rapp to charge. Rapp dashed forward with his horsemen and the Mamelukes, extricated the battalion, but was driven back by the Russian guard. The Emperor ordered us to halt, and sent forward first the Mamelukes and light cavalry. These Mamelukes were marvellous riders; they could do anything they chose with their horses. With their curved satires, they would take a man's head off with one blow, and their sharp stirrups tore the loins of the men they encountered. One of them came three different times up to the Emperor bringing a Russian standard. The third time, the Emperor wished to stop him, but he dashed in again, and returned no more. He rested on the field of battle.
The light horse were no less effective than the Mamelukes, but they had to contend with a force too strong for them. The Russian imperial guard was composed of gigantic men who fought with desperation. Our cavalry was at last driven back. Then the Emperor let loose his “black horses,” that is, his mounted grenadiers, commanded by General Bessières. They passed by us like a streak of lightning, and fell upon the enemy. For a quarter of an hour there was a desperate struggle, and that quarter of an hour seemed to us an age. We could see nothing through the smoke and dust. We feared we should see our comrades sabred in their turn. We were advancing slowly behind them, and if they had been defeated it would have been our turn.
There was a confusion for several minutes; everything went pell-mell, and no one knew which had the upper hand; but our grenadiers came off conquerors, and returned to their position behind the Emperor. General Rapp came back covered with blood, bringing a prince with him.
We had been sent forward at the double to assist in this struggle; the Russian infantry was behind this mass, and we thought that our turn had come, but they beat a retreat into the valley of the ponds. Not being able to move along the highway, which was blocked up, they were obliged to cross over the pond to the left, in front of us; and the Emperor, perceiving their awkward situation, sent down his artillery and the 2nd regiment of grenadiers. Our gunners opened fire and balls and shells rained on the ice, which gave way beneath this mass of Russians. All the troops clapped their hands, and our Napoleon wreaked vengeance on his snuff-box; it was a total rout.
In the midst of these solemn occurrences we found chance to laugh like children. A hare, frightened almost to death, was trying to escape, and came right up to us. My captain, Renard (Fox), seeing it, rushed forward to sabre it, but the hare made a turn. He darted after it, and the poor beast just managed to escape down a hole, like a rabbit. We, who were watching this chase, shouted at the top of our voices, “The fox won't catch the hare, the fox won't catch the hare.” And sure enough he could not catch it; so we all laughed at him, and we laughed so much the louder, because the captain was the best man in the world, esteemed and loved by all his soldiers, The day ended in following up and capturing cannons, wagons, and prisoners. That night we slept on the fine position which the Russian guard had occupied in the morning, and the Emperor occupied himself in seeing that the wounded were picked up. There were two leagues of battle-field to be gone over in search of them, and each corps furnished men for this sad duty.
That evening we went into the village on the opposite side of the mountain, facing the ponds, to get wood and straw. We were obliged to descend rapidly and could not see where we were going. But our marauders found some beehives, and in order to get some honey, they set fire to an immense shed. The flames gave sufficient light to enable us to carry off all that we needed most to spend a bitterly cold night, and to show us the way back up the winding pathway. Finding no provisions, I seized upon a vast pinewood cask. I took a feather-bed, crammed it into the cask and got one of my comrades to put it on my back. Then I climbed the hill; the miserable cask rolled about on my back, but I managed to reach my bivouac. I put down my burden, and my captain, Renard, came up at once and asked me to give him a place in my cask. I immediately went back to the village and brought a load of straw, which I put into my cask and put my feather bed in on top of it. We got in head foremost, and stuck our feet out in front of the fire. No one ever passed a more comfortable night. My captain said, “I shall remember you all my life.”
The next day we set out for Austerlitz, a poor little thatched village, with an old castle; but we found six hundred sheep in the stalls of the manor, and rations of them were distributed to the guard. The Emperor of Austria came to see Napoleon. After the two emperors had come to an understanding, we started for Vienna, marching by moderate stages, and went to Schoenbrunn, where we were lodged in that beautiful palace until the settlement of affairs. The guard received orders to return to France by easy stages. How glad we were! And to think we should be well fed! But the main army did not return; it was necessary that the peace should be signed and that our troops should have time to be reinforced. There were no twenty-league marches now; it was pleasant, too, to find our food ready for us when we arrived. We were kindly received in Bavaria, and we recrossed the Rhine transported with joy at seeing our country once more.
We were triumphantly received by the good people of Strassburg. I went straight to my lodgings, where I had left all my belongings as I passed through. I found everything as I had left it. Those good people felt me and said, “So you are not wounded?” Their young daughter said, “We have prayed for you; all your linen is clean and white, and your silver buckles are shining bright. I made the goldsmith polish them.”—”Thanks, my dear young lady. I bring you a beautiful shawl from Vienna, which I beg you to accept.” She blushed at this in presence of her mother, and the father and mother were both delighted. I said to them, “If I had died, my things would have gone to your daughter.” The father took me by the hand. “Come, let us go to the café,” said he; “the guard is here for the day; you will have time to rest.”
This beautiful shawl came from an imperial castle, where I had been stationed to prevent looting. The lady of the castle asked me if I was a married man. I answered, “Yes, madame.”—”Then I will make you a present for your wife, in return for your treatment of my husband.”
We now went to the beautiful city of Nancy, and from Nancy to Épernay. The first battalion was detached at the town of Ay, about a league from Épernay; it is here that they make the sparkling wine. This city has grown very rich upon its trade in these wines; for fifteen years no troops had been quartered there. We could not possibly have been more kindly received than we were; they would not allow the guard to pay for anything, they defrayed every expense. “You shall not drink the champagne now,” said they, “but this evening we will try it. Rest assured, you shall have plenty of it.” That evening, after dinner, the champagne was brought out, and our hosts were obliged to take their soldiers up in their arms and carry them to bed; they quite lost the use of their legs.
The next day all the heads of households escorted us out, taking with them servants carrying baskets of wine, and our officers were obliged to ask these kind men to go away. Our drunkards fell about in the ditches; the soldiers were demoralized. We had to rest three hours in the plain, two leagues from Épernay, so as to give time for the men to get together. Our hosts of Ay were obliged to pick up the stragglers and take them back. We were not all reunited till the next day; but no one was punished.
We reached Meaux, in Brie, where we were kindly received. I was alone; I went to present my billeting order in Rue Basse, which leads to Paris. I got some one to read my order for me, as I could not read myself. A fat man said to me, “The lady is rich, but she will send you to an inn. Here, go to this locksmith's shop.” I went to the locksmith and showed him my order. “My fine fellow,” said he, “my landlady is going to send you to an inn.”—”Don't worry, I expect I shall be able to handle the lady. Look me up in an hour's time.”—”But you won't be there.”—”You will see that I shall, without any fuss, too.” I went up to the first floor. “Good morning, madame, here is your billeting order.”—”But, sir, I do not take lodgers.”—”I know madame; but I am very tired, and I am going to rest for a bit. If madame will have the goodness to go and get me: a bottle of wine, there are fifteen sous After that I will go away.”
She took my fifteen sous and went for the bottle of wine. As soon as she went out, I took off my clothes and tied my handkerchief round my head; I rolled myself up in her bed and began to tremble as hard as I could. Presently madame came back; she saw me in her bed and began to scream. Then she went for her tenants and consulted with them; they told her she must make me some warm wine with plenty of sugar in it, put the pot on the fire to make me a good broth, and cover me up well, for I had a terrible chill. The wicked creatures enjoyed themselves at the expense of the miserly woman. That evening they came up to see me, and the lady spent the night on her sofa. The next day madame returned my fifteen sous, and I was escorted to other quarters. The neighbours were delighted with the joke I had played.
We went to Claye, and from Claye to the Porte St. Denis, where the people of Paris were waiting for us; they had made us a triumphal arch. We found, in the Champs-Élysées, tents prepared, with tables served with cold meats and vintage wines. But as ill-luck would have it, the rain fell in such torrents that the plates were filled with water. We could not eat, but we drew the corks from the bottles and drank standing. It was a pitiful sight to see us; we were as wet as ducks.