ON the 26th of June, 1812 we crossed the Niemen. Prince Murat formed the advance guard with his cavalry; Marshal Davoust, with sixty thousand men, marched in column, together with the whole guard and his artillery, on the high road to Wilna. It is impossible to give any idea of such a spectacle as those columns, moving over those arid plains, with no habitations except some wretched villages devastated by the Russians. Prince Murat caught up with them at the bridge of Kowno; they were obliged to fall back upon Wilna. The weather, which up to that time had been very fine, suddenly changed. On the 29th of June, at three o'clock, a violent storm arose, just before we came to a village, which I had had the greatest possible difficulty in reaching. When we reached the shelter of this village, we could not unharness our horses; we had to take off their bridles, cut grass for them, and light our fires. The storm of sleet and snow was so terrible that we could scarcely keep our horses still; we had to fasten them to the wheels. I was half dead with the cold; not being able to stand it any longer, I opened one of my wagons, and crept inside. Next morning a heartrending sight met our gaze: in the cavalry camp near by, the ground was covered with horses frozen to death; more than ten thousand died during that dreadful night. When I got out of my wagon, all numbed with the cold, I saw that three of my horses were dead. I at once harnessed those that were left to my four wagons. The wretched animals were shaking and trembling enough to break their bones; they threw themselves into their collars in desperation; they were half mad, and plunged violently in harness. If I had been an hour later, I should have lost them all. It took all our strength to master them.
When we reached the highway, we saw the dead bodies of a number of soldiers who had succumbed before the terrible storm. This demoralized a great many of our men. Fortunately, our forced marches caused the Emperor of Russia to leave Wilna, where he had established his headquarters. In this large city it was possible to reduce the army to order. The Emperor arrived on the 29th of June, and immediately gave orders to arrest stragglers of all arms, and quarter them in an enclosure outside of the city. Here they were closely confined, and their rations were distributed to them. Military police were sent out in every direction to pick them up. They were formed into three battalions of seven or eight hundred men; all of them were still in possession of their arms.
After a short interval of rest, the army marched forward into immense forests, where it was necessary to be constantly on the watch, for fear of being surprised by the enemy in ambush. An army must march carefully when there is danger of being cut off. Before he started himself, the Emperor sent the chasseurs of his guard on ahead, and we remained with him. On the 13th of July, he issued an order for twenty-two non-commissioned officers to be sent to him, for promotion to lieutenancies in the line. As the chasseurs had all gone off, all the promotions fell to us. We had to be on the square at two o'clock to be presented to the Emperor. At noon I was passing by with my package of letters, for distribution, under my arm; Major Belcourt grasped my arm, and, pressing it heartily, said, “My man, you will be a lieutenant of the line before to-day is over.”—“Thank you, but I do not wish to return to the line.”—“I tell you, you will wear a lieutenant's epaulets to-day; and I give you my word that if the Emperor puts you into the line, I will manage to have you returned to the guard. So not a word; be on the square at two o'clock, without fail.”—“Very well, I will be there.”—“I shall be there before you.”—“That's good enough for me, captain.”
At two o'clock the Emperor came to review us; all twenty-two of us were there, standing in line. Beginning at the right-hand man, and looking every one of those fine-looking non-commissioned officers all over from head to foot, he said to General Dorsenne, “These will make fine regimental officers.” When he came to me, he saw that I was the smallest of them all, and the major said to him, “This is our instructor; he does not wish to go into the line.”—“What! you do not wish to go into the line?”—“No, sire; I wish to remain in your guard.”—“Very well, I will appoint you to my minor staff.” Then, turning to his chief of staff, Count Monthyon, he said, “Take this little ‘grouser,’ and let him be attached to the minor general staff.” How glad I was to remain near the Emperor! I did not suspect that I was leaving paradise for hell; but I later found that it was so.
The brave General Monthyon came up to me; “Here is my address. Come to me for orders at eight o'clock tomorrow.” That evening my comrades shot my pack to pieces.
The next day, at the appointed hour, I went to see the general, who received me with the gracious smile of a man who loves old soldiers. “Well,” said he, “you are to do duty near the Emperor. If you don't mind, I must ask you to cut off your long moustaches; the Emperor does not like moustaches on his staff officers. So I am afraid you must sacrifice them. If I were to send you on a mission, would you be afraid of a Cossack?”—“No, general.”—“I want two of your comrades who know how to command, to lead three battalions of mixed troops. You will know which to select; send them to me. As for you, I have seen you command; you understand your business. I have three battalions of stragglers to send back to their army corps. To-morrow you shall command them in presence of the Emperor. So come here with your two comrades, and we will at once see about organizing the three battalions.”
On reaching the enclosure, the general called for the soldiers of the third corps, and placed them at one side, and soon for those of the other corps. When this was done, we returned to settle up our accounts with the quartermaster of the guard, and receive our certificates and our funds. Fortunately for me, the soldiers of the train had provided me with a fine horse, with saddle and portmanteau. So far, I was all right, but I had no helmet and no sabre; I had only a foraging cap, and my chevrons had been taken off. I looked like a degraded non-commissioned officer. This hurt me.
I went to the quartermaster's office to get my pay and the certificate of my services, and then to take leave of my kind officers. They told me to take my choice of the horses belonging to my teams. “I thank you, but I am already well mounted. I had set aside a fine horse, with saddle and bridle, which did not belong to the teams, and I leave everything in good condition.”—“Good-bye, old man, we shall often see one another.”—“If I had a proper hat, I should be content.”—“Very well, come back this evening, and you will find one at the quartermaster's office; I will look out for it,” said the adjutant-major. —“Now I am all right.”—“And if I can find a sabre for you, I will do so at once. You have a right to one.”
I left them, quite overwhelmed; I went to see Count Monthyon, and tell him I had been discharged. “I will have your first pay as lieutenant given to you so that you can fit yourself out. Make haste and settle up your affairs; we must be off soon.”—“To-morrow, general, all my accounts will be settled.”
That night I went to the quartermaster's office, and found an officer's hat and an old sabre, and I felt twice the man I was. The next morning, I presented myself with my long sabre at my side, and my cocked hat. “Ah!” said he, “excellent. I must find you some epaulets. We leave on the 16th of July. Come to me twice a day for orders.”
On the morning of the 15th, I presented myself before Count Monthyon, who said, “We leave to-morrow. You will have seven hundred men to take back to the third corps. At noon, parade at the castle before the Emperor. I have just warned your two comrades to be ready at eleven o’clock to take command of their battalions. They must be inspected at once; the muster-rolls are made out by regiments. My aide-de-camp has gone to call the roll; we shall find everything ready.”
When we reached the enclosure, we found them all under arms, in three battalions. He placed us in command, and had us acknowledged as their commanders; he gave us our marching orders and the rolls of the regiments. At six o'clock, on the 15th, I went into the enclosure to call them out, regiment by regiment. I first found a hundred and thirty-three Spaniards belonging to the regiment of Joseph Napoleon, and so on with the others. When my roll had been called, I inspected arms. I had had no sergeant given me; a drummer and one small bugler was my whole staff with which to manage seven hundred men. I made them carry arms and pile arms. At nine o'clock we had soup, and at ten all was ready. My two comrades were equally energetic. At eleven o'clock Count Monthyon came up, walked quickly along the line, and we started off. Fortunately, I had a drum; but for that, the march would have been in dead silence.
My little band-boy marched at the right of the battalion with his little sword in his hand. We went to the palace. I dressed my battalion by the right in line in the front rank, with the others behind. I put out markers; as they knew nothing of the drill, I had to take them by the arm, and the Emperor was watching me from his balcony. I made them carry arms, and gave the command, “Right dress! Markers, steady!” I corrected the dressing, and took my place at the right of my battalion. Count Monthyon went for the Emperor. They came out, and a sign was made for me to come to them. “How much ammunition are you short of?”—“Three hundred and seventy-three packets, sire.”—“Make out an order for your cartridges and one for a double ration of bread and meat. Carry arms, by the right flank, and lead them on to the square. I will have them guarded; and go at once for your bread, meat, and cartridges.”
All the outlets from the square were guarded; I ordered the men to pile arms, took a party for special duty, went for the cartridges, and distributed them; then I went for the meat and bread. At seven o'clock all the distributions had been made. I was half-dead with hunger, and went to get something to eat, and see about my fine horse. I chose a dismounted cavalryman for my servant. I received an order to march at eight o'clock.
After leaving Wilna, we found ourselves surrounded by great forests. I left the head of my battalion, and went to the rear, making the stragglers keep up by placing my little bandsman on the right to mark the time. Night came on, and I saw some of my deserters steal away into the depths of the forest without being able to bring them back to the ranks, on account of the darkness. I could do nothing but curse. What was to be done with such soldiers? I said to myself, “They will all desert.”
They marched for two hours. Then the head of my battalion, finding an open space on the left of the road where there were no woods, established themselves there on their own initiative. When I came up with the rear, fires were already lighted. Imagine my surprise!” What are you doing there? Why have you halted?”—“We have marched far enough; we need rest and food.”
The fires were burning and the pots boiling. At midnight the Emperor passed by with his escort. Seeing my bivouac all lighted up, he halted, and called me to the door of his carriage. “What are you doing here?”—“Please your Majesty, it is not I who command, but they. I came up with the rear-guard, and found the head of the battalion settled down and the fires lighted. A great many deserters have already returned to Wilna, taking their two rations with them. What can I do alone with seven hundred stragglers?”—“Do the best you can; I will give orders to have them arrested.”
I departed, and I was left to spend the night with these unmanageable soldiers, and sigh for my sergeant's stripes. But this was not the end of my troubles. At dawn I had the assembly beaten; at broad daylight I made my drummer beat to arms, and started once more on our route, telling them that the Emperor was going to have all deserters arrested. I marched until noon, and, as we emerged from a wood, I came upon a herd of cows grazing in a meadow. My soldiers immediately took their bowls, and went off to milk the cows, and we had to wait for them. When the evening came, they would camp before nightfall, and every time we came across any cows, we had to stop. It may be imagined that this was not much fun for me. At last we came to a forest, very far away from the towns, a considerable portion of which had been destroyed by fire. This burnt forest extended along the way on my right, and I saw a party of my troops turn to the right into these charred woods. I galloped off after them, to make them come back to the road. To my surprise, these soldiers faced about and fired at me. I was obliged to let them go. This was a plot got up among the soldiers of Joseph Napoleon, who were all Spaniards. There were a hundred and thirty-three of them, and not one single Frenchman had joined the brigands. When I returned to my detachment, I made them form a circle, and said to them, “I shall have to report this affair. Be Frenchmen, and follow me! I shall act as rear-guard no longer; that shall be your duty. By the right, march!”
That same evening we emerged from the forest, and came to a village where there was some cavalry stationed, with a colonel who was guarding the forks of the road, and showing the troops which to take. I went to him, and made my report; he ordered my battalion to camp, and, upon suggestions from me, he sent for some Jews and his interpreter. He judged, from the distance, to which village my deserters must have gone, and sent off fifty chasseurs, with the Jews to guide them. About half-way they met some peasants who had been unjustly treated, and were coming to ask for protection. They reached the village at midnight, surrounded it, and surprised the Spaniards while they were asleep; seized them, disarmed them, and put their muskets in a wagon. The men were tied and put into small wagons with a strong guard. At eight o'clock in the morning the hundred and thirty-three Spaniards arrived, and were set free from their shackles. The colonel ordered them into line and said to them, “Your conduct has been disgraceful. I am going to form you into sections. Are there any sergeants or corporals among you to form your sections?” At this two sergeants showed their stripes, which had been concealed by their cloaks. “Stand out! Are there any corporals?” Three came forward. “Stand out! Are there any more among you? All right! Now, the rest of you will draw lots. “Those who drew white tickets were placed on one side, and those who drew black ones, on the other. When all had drawn, he said to them, “You have run away, you have acted as incendiaries, you have fired upon your officer; the law condemns you to death, and you must submit to your punishment. I could have you all shot, but I will spare half of you. Let them serve as an example to you. Commander, order your battalion to load. My adjutant will give the command to fire. “They shot sixty-two of them. My God! what a scene it was. I left the spot immediately with a bursting heart, but the Jews were highly delighted. Such was my first experience as lieutenant.
I was anxious to reach the end of my journey; but the marshal was ahead of me. At Gluskoé, where I found the guard, I put my soldiers into bivouac, and had provisions given them. The next day I started for Witepsk, where two stiff battles had been fought. I longed to get rid of my hateful burden. At last I reached Witepsk, full of joy, thinking I had come to the end of my march. But I was mistaken; the marshal's corps was still three leagues ahead. I went to get orders as to which road I should take, and, on returning, found only the drummer waiting for me. “Well, where are they all?”—“All run away,” said my drummer and my servant; “some one told them that the third corps was only one league off.”
I started off with my drummer and my servant. I had three leagues to go. At four o'clock I caught up with the marshal's staff. The aide-de-camp and the officers, seeing me alone with my drummer and solitary soldier, began to laugh. “It is not very becoming in you, gentlemen, to laugh at me. See, general, here is my route-bill; you will see what I have been doing since I left Wilna.”
When the chief of staff had looked over my report, he took me aside. “Where are your men?”—“They deserted me at Witepsk, just before we entered the town, when I galloped off to get orders for the route I was to take to join you. They all ran off in the joyful expectation of joining their corps more quickly. As for the sixty who were shot, there was not one Frenchman among them.”—“You had a bad time with your scoundrels, eh?”—“Ah, general, I sweated blood.”—“I want to present you to the marshal.”—“I know him, and he knows me; he will not laugh at me as your officers did. They hurt me very much.”—“Come, my brave fellow, think no more of it. Come with me; I will make it all right.”
When he came where his officers were, he said, “Take this good man to my tent, and give him something to drink. I am going to see the marshal, for he brings us news. See to this at once. I will rejoin you in a moment.” He returned, and taking me by the arm before his officers, who were much confounded, he said, “Come, the marshal wishes to see you.”
When the marshal saw my uniform, he said, “You are one of my old grousers.”—“Yes, general. It was you who made me put the cards into my stockings to make me tall enough to enter the grenadiers whom you commanded at that time.”—“That is so; I remember. You had already received a musket of honour at the battle of Montebello, and you have since been decorated.”—“Yes, general; the first one in 1804.”—“This is one of my old grenadiers. You must not go away till to-morrow. I will give you my despatches. Which is your corps?”—“I am attached to the Emperor's minor headquarters, under Count Monthyon.”—“Ah! you have a good position. To-morrow, at ten o'clock, you will receive my despatches. Put this old soldier at the officers' table, and feed his horse.”—“Yes, marshal.”—“And hand over to him a complete list of men who have returned to duty. Look over all the regiments, and see if their returns are ready and report to me this evening at eight o'clock. “To me, he said, “At ten o'clock to-morrow, you must start for Witepsk; you will find the Emperor there. I will give you a letter to Monthyon.” Returning to his officers, the chief of staff said, “This officer is one of our oldest soldiers; treat him as he deserves; he is well known to the marshal. Let him dine with you, and after dinner my aide-de-camp will accompany him to the commanding officers, so that he can receive the returns.”
In a word, they sang low mass with me, and put water in their wine. I was most kindly received, and, after dinner, I was conducted to the camp, where I saw those of my men who had returned, and who hastened to ask pardon for their ill-conduct to me. “I have no complaint to make,” said I; “it was their zeal which carried them away.”
When we met the colonel of the Spaniards, who was a Frenchman, I asked him for my receipt. “But,” said he, “half of them are missing.”—“They are dead, colonel. Go and see the marshal.”—“What, dead?”—“Half of them were shot.”—“Then I will shoot the other half.” —“You have no right to do it; they have been pardoned. They submitted to their punishment, and the Emperor must decide the matter.”—“How many are killed?”— “Sixty-two, of whom two were sergeants and three corporals.”—“Give me the details.”—“I cannot; the marshal is waiting. Let me have my receipt, if you please; I must go at once.” The aide-de-camp took him aside, and, after a few words, we left. The next day, at eight o'clock, I went to the marshal. “Here are your despatches, off you go!”
By noon I reached Witepsk, and went to see Count Monthyon. I handed him my despatches and receipts. He had learned all that had passed, and the Emperor was informed of it. The marshal had said a word or two for me which pleased the general. “You shall not go on duty again,” said he, “until we reach Smolensk,”
Witepsk is a large town. There I met my old comrades and officers. We remained there waiting for supplies. The excessive heat, added to all our other privations, brought on dysentery, from which our army suffered considerable loss. The Emperor left Witepsk during the night of the 12th of August. All the corps under his command went, by forced marches, to Smolensk, a strong position about thirty-two leagues off. The investment was completed on the morning of the 17th of August. Napoleon ordered the attack along the whole line about two o'clock in the afternoon, and the battle was a terribly bloody one. During the engagement he sent for me. “Start at once for Witepsk with this order, which enjoins upon every man, no matter to what branch of the army he may belong, to give you assistance in unsaddling your horse. At the relays, all the horses will be at your disposal in case of need, except the artillery horses. Are you mounted?”—“Yes, sire, I have two horses.”—“Take them both. When you have ridden one down, take the other. Go as fast as you possibly can. I shall expect you back to-morrow; it is now three o'clock. Go!” I mounted at once; Count Monthyon said to me, “There is need for haste, my lad; take your other horse by the bridle, and leave the first one on the way.”—“But they are both saddled.”—“Leave your best saddle with my servants. Do not lose a moment.”
I flew like lightning, leading my other horse. When the first one began to give way under me, I dismounted. With one turn I changed the saddle to the other horse, and left my poor beast lying on the ground. I dashed on. When I came to a wood I met some sutlers who were going to rejoin their corps. “Halt! a horse at once! I leave you mine as it stands; I am in great haste. Unbridle and unsaddle my horse.”—“Here are four fine Polish horses,” said the sutler, “which will you have?”—“That one! quick, quick! I am in a hurry. I have not a moment to lose.” Ah, that good horse, how far he carried me! I found in that forest a line of posts guarding the road. When I came to the officer in command: “See, here is my order: a horse, quick! Keep mine!”
I did not lose an hour's time all the way to Witepsk. I gave my despatches to the general in command. After reading them he said, “Give this officer his dinner, let him lie down on a mattress for an hour, have a good horse ready for him, and a chasseur to escort him. You will find a regiment camped near the wood. He can change horses at the post in the wood.” When the hour had elapsed the general came. “Your package is ready; start, my brave fellow. If you meet with no delay on the way, you will not have spent twenty-four hours on the road, even counting the loss of time in changing horses.” I started off well mounted and escorted. I found the regiment camped in the forest. I presented my order to the colonel. As soon as he read it, “Give him your horse, adjutant-major, it is the Emperor's order. Unsaddle his horse. There is no time to lose.”
I expected to find the cavalry stations in the wood; but I did not. They had all gone off, or been captured. I found myself alone without any escort. I wondered what I ought to do. I went along more slowly, and presently saw, some distance off on an eminence, some cavalry dismounted. I kept along the edge of the wood so as not to be seen, for they were doubtless Cossacks on the watch. I went closer into the wood. Suddenly a peasant came out, who said to me, “Cossacks!” I had seen them plainly enough. Without hesitating, I dismounted, and, seizing my pistol, I pointed it at the peasant, showing him gold in one hand and my pistol in the other. He understood, and said to me, “Tac, sac,” which meant, “All right.” Putting my gold back in the pocket of my waistcoat, and passing my horse's bridle over my arm, I took my loaded pistol in my left hand, and, with my right I held on to the Russian, who led me along a path. After following it for a considerable distance, he brought me back towards my route, saying, “Nien, nein, Cossacks!”
I then recognized my road, for I saw the birch-trees. Filled with joy, I gave three napoleons to the peasant, and mounted my horse. How I dug my spurs into his sides! The road disappeared behind me. I was fortunate enough to reach a farm before my horse began to stumble. I dashed into the courtyard, and, seeing three young medical officers, I dismounted and ran to the stable. “A horse at once! I will leave you mine. Read this order.”
I mounted another good horse, which travelled well; but I should need one more, at least, to carry me to the end of my journey. The night was coming on, and I could no longer see my way before me. Fortunately, I met four officers well mounted. I began to go through the same ceremony. “See if you can read this order from the Emperor, requiring you to give me a fresh horse.” A large man, whom I took to be a general, said to one of the others, “Unsaddle your horse; give it to this officer. His orders are pressing. Assist him.”
This saved me. I reached the field of battle. I went round looking and asking for the Emperor. All answered me, “We do not know where he is.” I went on, and leaving the road, I saw some fires on my left. I came to some small brushwood. I went forward and passed near a battery. Some one called, “Who goes there?”—“An orderly officer.”—“Halt! you are going towards the enemy.”—“Where is the Emperor?”—“Come this way; I will lead you near his post.” When I rode up to the officer, he said, “Conduct him to the Emperor's tent.”—“I thank you.” I reached the tent, and had myself announced. General Monthyon came out, and said to me, “Is it you, my fine fellow? I will take you to the Emperor at once. He thought you had been captured.” Then my general said to the Emperor?” Here is the officer who has just come from Witepsk.” I gave him my despatches, and he saw my deplorable condition. “How did you get through the forest? The Cossacks were there.”—“With gold, sire; a peasant took me through a winding path, and saved me.”—“How much did you pay him?”—“Three napoleons.”—”And your horses?” —“I have none now.”—“Monthyon, pay him for all the expenses of his journey: for his two horses, and the sixty francs which the peasant well deserved. Give my old grouser time to remount himself. For his two horses, sixteen hundred francs and expenses. I am well pleased with you.”
The next day we entered Smolensk. At daylight no one could pass into the city. The Russians, from the other side on the heights, riddled the town with shells and cannonballs. It was in a sad plight. About two o'clock in the afternoon a general attack was ordered. The battle was terribly bloody, and the firing ceased only with the daylight. The city took fire that beautiful August night. In order to get into it, we had to cross a low ground, and then ascend to a gate, which was barricaded with sacks of salt. Thousands of sacks barred this imposing entrance. As for the street, we traversed it between furnaces. All the great storehouses were a solid mass of embers, particularly the sugar depot. It is impossible to describe the different colours of the blaze. It may be truly said that Smolensk cost us dear, and the Russians dearer. The loss on both sides was considerable. We were obliged to move round the city in order to take possession of the heights. Then we remained several days at Smolensk. To go out of the city, we had to descend a very steep slope, cross a bridge, and turn abruptly to the right. From Smolensk to Moscow is a distance of ninety-three leagues, and the whole way the road is through deep forests. On the 19th of August took place the battle which Marshal Ney fought at Valoutina. The Emperor received a report of the battle, and learned that Marshal Davoust had gone three leagues beyond the line of battle. He had gone through a forest without searching it, and might be cut off by the Russians. The Emperor foresaw this, and sent me to order him to fall back.
On reaching the marshal, I handed him the despatches. He immediately ordered his reserve to wheel about, and his whole corps to retreat, and sent me back. I found his reserve division already in close columns, occupying the whole road through the wood. Not being able to pass them, I took a road to the left, which ran parallel with the route, and galloped off to get ahead of the retreating division, and so ran into the midst of a Russian column which was going across this narrow road. Seeing that it was itself in full retreat, I did not lose my presence of mind, but began to shout with the voice of a Stentor, “Forward !” And, turning back, I rode through the frightened fugitives, who stooped as they crossed the road. I finally extricated myself, and, gaining the main road, I informed our officers that the Russians were in the wood.
I met the guard on the way, they having left Smolensk on the 25th of August to go to the outposts. I also saw the Emperor, and reported to him my adventure. “Did you see the battle-field?” asked the Emperor. “No, sire; but the road was covered with Russians and a great many Frenchmen.”—“You cannot follow me; you must come on with the carriages to-morrow, and join me.”
He said to his groom, “Take care of my old grouser; he will follow you.” I was well looked after, and the next day a horse was furnished me, so that I could allow mine to rest. We rejoined the Emperor by forced marches. On the 29th, as the Russians were leaving a town on the banks of the Wiazma, they set fire to the storehouses, and a fourth of the town was burnt. For forty leagues they continued to do this, remorselessly burning the cottage filled with their own wounded, which we found reduced to ashes. Not a barrack remained along the route. As for their wounded, the amputations were skilfully performed, and bandages well applied; but they afterwards sent them into another world. And if they did not have time to bury them, they left them in piles for us to see. It was a heart-rending sight.
The Emperor, after having spent a part of the day of the 6th of September in reconnoitring the enemy's position, sent orders for the battle which was to take place the next day. It is known as the battle of the Moskwa. In order to pass into the plain occupied by the Russians, it was necessary to leave the wood. As soon as we emerged from it we saw, on the right of the road, a large redoubt which shelled us as we came out. We had to make unheard-of efforts to take it. The cuirassiers carried it, and then the columns spread out in the plain. The grand reserve was placed on the left of the main road, and we could not see the battle-line of the columns; we could only see some coppices of willows and skirts of woods. We passed the night in getting ready; at break of day we were all on foot, and the artillery began on both sides. The Emperor made a great movement with his reserve, and ordered it over to the right side of the main road, flanked by a deep ravine, from which position he did not move all day. He had there with him twenty or twenty-five thousand men—the élite of France—all in full uniform. From time to time messengers came to ask him to order the guard to finish the battle, but in vain; he held out the whole day. Our troops made every possible effort to take the redoubts which were thundering upon our infantry on the right; they were always repulsed, and the victory depended upon this position. The general led me up to the Emperor. “Are you well mounted?”—“Yes, sire.”—“Go at once and carry this order to Caulaincourt; you will find him on the right by the side of the wood. You will see the cuirassiers; it is he who commands them. Do not return till after the end.”
I went to the general, and presented the order. He read it, and said to his aide-de-camp, “Here is the order which I have been expecting. Sound to horse! Send the colonels up for orders.” They came up on horseback, and formed a circle. Caulaincourt read them the order to take the redoubts, and appointed to each the redoubt he was to attack. “I will reserve the second for myself. You, officer of the staff, follow me; do not lose sight of me.”—“I shall not, general.”—“If I fall, you, colonel, must take the command; those redoubts must be taken at the first charge.” Then he said to the colonels, “You hear what I say: go to the head of your regiments. The grenadiers are waiting for us. There is not a moment to lose! Trot when I give the command, and charge as soon as you are within musket-shot. The grenadiers will break in the barriers.”
The cuirassiers went along the edge of the wood and fell upon the redoubts directly in front, while the grenadiers attacked the barriers. Cuirassiers and French grenadiers struggled pell-mell with the Russians. The brave Caulaincourt fell stone-dead beside me. I followed the old colonel who took the command, and never lost sight of him. When the charge was over and the redoubts in our possession, the old colonel said to me, “Go and tell the Emperor that the victory is ours. I shall send him the staff-officers taken in the redoubts.”
The Russians made every possible effort to save the redoubts, but Marshal Ney thundered upon their right wing. I started off at a gallop, and, as I was crossing the battle-field, I saw the ground ploughed up by cannonballs, and thought I should not escape them. When I reached the Emperor I dismounted, and, loosing my chin-strap and taking off my hat, I saw that the hind peak was gone. “Well done,” said he; “you have had a close shave.”—“I had not noticed it till now. The redoubts are taken; General Caulaincourt is dead.”—“A sad loss!”—“A good many officers are captured and will be brought to you.”
Everybody laughed at my hat with its one peak. I did not mind; people laugh at everything. The Emperor called for his bear-skin coat. As he was on the side of a steep ravine, he was almost in a standing position when lying down. Just at this moment the officers who had been captured in the redoubts arrived, escorted by a company of grenadiers. They were drawn up in line according to their rank. The Emperor reviewed them, and asked if his soldiers had robbed them of anything. They answered that not a single soldier had interfered with them in any way. An old grenadier of the company stepped from the ranks, and, presenting his arms to the Emperor, said, “It was I who captured that superior officer.” The Emperor listened to all that the grenadier had to say, and took down his name. “And what did your captain do?”—“He was the first man to enter the third redoubt.” The Emperor then said to the latter, “I appoint you chief of battalion, and your officers shall have the cross.” And added, “Commander, move by the left, and be off to the field of Honour.” Then they shouted, “Long live the Emperor!” and flew to rejoin their eagle. We passed the night on the battle-field, and the next day the Emperor had all the wounded taken up. This task made us shudder; the ground was covered with Russian muskets: near their field hospitals there were piles of dead bodies and heaps of limbs which had been amputated.
Murat pursued them so rapidly that they burned up their wounded men; we found them all charred skeletons. That shows how much they valued their soldiers. The Emperor left Mojaisk on the afternoon of the 12th and moved his headquarters to Tartaki, a small village. Count Monthyon sent for me, and said, “You are very fortunate: the Emperor intends sending you to join Prince Murat, who is to enter Moscow to-morrow. Come for the Emperor's orders.” When I went into His Majesty's presence, he said, “I have appointed you to go and join Murat; take with you twenty gendarmes, and when you reach the Kremlin examine the vaults, and post the gendarmes at all the entrances of the palace. Monthyon, give him your interpreter and my despatches for Murat. To-morrow morning you are to start.” How proud I was of such a mission! At ten o'clock I had reached Prince Murat. I gave him my despatches. “We are to march,” said he; “you will follow me with your gendarmes.”—“Yes, prince.”—“But you have only a piece of a hat.”—“The Russians wanted the other part for touchwood.” He burst out laughing. “You were formerly in the guard?”—“Yes, prince; in the foot grenadiers.”—“You are one of our veterans. Order your gendarmes to be on horseback at eleven o'clock to advance with us to the bridge.”
We emerged from the forest. A dry and sandy plain sloped rapidly down in front of an immensely long bridge, built on piles, where there was no water; it was used only during the melting of the snows. When we reached the bridge, we found the city authorities there and a Russian general, who presented the keys to the prince. After the usual ceremonies, the prince gave the Russian general a casket richly studded with diamonds, and we entered the city by a broad and well-built street. We were preceded by four pieces of cannon, a battalion, and a squad of cavalry; all the people came to the windows to see us pass, and the ladies presented us with bottles of wine, but no one stopped. We marched slowly. At the end of this immense street we came to the foot of the Kremlin. The ascent to it is very steep. It is a strong castle overlooking the city, which is divided into two parts, and, consequently, two immense cities seem lying below it. On the summit to the right is the splendid palace of the Emperors. On the square of the Kremlin to the left is a large arsenal; to the right, the church, which has the palace at its back, and in front of the square is a magnificent public building. As we turned to the right we were assailed by a perfect hail of shot, fired from the windows of the arsenal. We wheeled about; the doors were burst open, and we found the ground floor and first story filled with drunken soldiers and peasants. A carnage ensued; those who escaped were put into the church. I lost my horse there. After this affray, Prince Murat continued his march, and descended into the lower town in order to pass out of the city and reach the road to Kalouga.
At the Kremlin I left the prince, and went to carry out my orders. My interpreter took me to the magistrates to have my gendarmes lodged, and afterwards conducted me to the palace. This interpreter must have said very fine things to them about me, for refreshments were offered me immediately, and it was there that I drank tea with rum in it for the first time. I was lodged in the house of a Russian general, and with me, four gendarmes and the interpreter. I went with the guards to examine the subterranean passages, and then went up again into the palace. One could easily get lost there. I posted my gendarmes, and had their food provided for them by the gentlemen who had received me so kindly. I and my guide were invited into a smoking-room. I do not know what effect my one-peaked hat had upon them, but they all gazed at it, and wanted to touch it.
I returned to the tomb of the czars. I was surprised to see at the foot of this gigantic monument a bell of immense size. I was told that it fell from the top of the framework and was thus implanted here. The circumference of this bell has been decorated so as to mark it as an unusual monument; it is surrounded by bricks, placed so that it can be seen. I climbed up into the tomb of the emperors, and saw the bell which occupies the place of the one of which I have just spoken; it also is monstrous; the clapper is something unheard of. Thousands of names are inscribed upon this bell.
A beautiful street leading from the Kremlin opens upon a fine boulevard surrounded by handsome palaces. This part of the city was not burned, and became our place of refuge.
When I had fulfilled the duty which had been assigned me, I waited for the Emperor, but in vain; he did not come. He had set up his headquarters in the faubourg; the guard took possession of the palace, and relieved my four gendarmes. As I was crossing the square of the Kremlin, I met some soldiers loaded with fur robes and bear-skins; I stopped them, and offered to buy their furs. “How much is this one?”—“Forty francs.” I took it immediately, and paid him the price he asked “And this bear-skin?”—“Forty francs.”—“Here they are.” It was a piece of luck to obtain these two things of such inestimable value to me. I went off with my gendarmes to the house of my Russian general. The Emperor was obliged to leave his headquarters in the faubourg during the night, and establish himself in the Kremlin, in consequence of a fire which broke out in both of the lower towns. It must have required a great many persons to set fire to all parts of the town at the same time. It was said that all the criminals from the prisons took part in it; each man had a street, and went from house to house, setting them on fire. We had to escape into the squares and large gardens. Seven hundred of the incendiaries were arrested, tinder in hand, and taken to the vaults of the Kremlin. The fire was made more frightful by the wind which blew the roofing of sheet-iron off the palaces and churches; all the people, as well as the troops, found themselves in the midst of the fire. The wind was terrible; the sheets of iron were blown immense distances through the air. There were eight hundred fire-engines in Moscow, but they had all been removed.
About eleven o'clock in the night we heard screams in the gardens, and, going to investigate, found that our soldiers were robbing the women of their shawls and ear-rings. We hastened to put a stop to the pillage. Two or three thousand women were there, with their children in their arms, looking upon the horrors of the fire, and I am sure I never saw one of them shed a tear.
The Emperor was obliged to withdraw on the evening of the 16th, and establish himself at the castle of Petrowskoi, about a league from Moscow. The army also left the city, which was thus abandoned to pillage and fire. The Emperor remained four days at Petrowskoi, awaiting the end of the burning of Moscow; he re-entered the city on the 20th of September, and again took up his quarters in the Kremlin, and the minor-staff, to which I belonged, was stationed near the ramparts at a short distance from the Kremlin. I was employed as assistant, with two of my comrades, to a colonel of the staff, who had charge of the clearing of the hospitals.
We were lodged in the house of a princess, all four of us, with our horses and our servants; the colonel had three servants of his own, and he kept them well employed. He used to send us into the hospitals to have the sick discharged, but never went himself. He stayed to attend to his own affairs. He would go out in the evening with three servants furnished with wax tapers; he knew that the pictures in the churches were all in relief on plaques of silver, so he took them down, in order to get this silver plate; he put the saints into a crucible, and reduced them to ingots, which he sold to the Jews for bank-notes. He was a hard man with a face to match.
We had thousands of bottles of Bordeaux wine, champagne, and thousands of pounds of white and brown sugar. Every evening the old princess sent us four bottles of good wine and some sugar. Her cellars were full of casks. She came frequently to see us, and consequently her house was respected. She spoke good French. One evening the colonel showed us his purchases, or, rather, his stolen goods, for he was always going round with his three servants. He showed us some beautiful fur robes made of the skins of the Siberian fox. I had the imprudence to show him mine, and he compelled me to exchange it with him for one of the Siberian fox. Mine was of sable, but I had to submit. I feared his vengeance. He was rascal enough to take it from me, and sell it to Prince Murat for three thousand francs. This robber of churches was a disgrace to the name of Frenchman. I saw him afterwards at Wilna, frozen to death. God punished him. His servants robbed his body.
All the hospitals in Moscow were under round vaults. Russians and Frenchmen died together in these infected places. Every morning the wagons were loaded with the dead; and I had to see that they were buried, having them dumped from the wagons into holes twenty feet deep. It is impossible to describe such a sight. After the fire was over, a list was made out of the burned houses; it numbered ten thousand; and the palaces and churches burned were more than five hundred. All that remained of them were the chimneys and the stoves, which were very large. They looked like a forest which had been lopped off, and only the stumps left. The ground might have been ploughed up, for there was not one stone left upon another.
The palaces occupied half the city, with parks, brooks and conservatories large enough to contain trees of considerable height, and bearing fruit in winter. This was one of the luxuries of Moscow. The losses could not be estimated. No one can imagine a sadder scene.
When my wretched task was completed, I had a few days’ rest. My general said to me, “I shall keep you near me; you shall not leave me any more, and you shall eat at my table. You have suffered a great deal in the service of the evacuation of the hospitals. Now you shall rest.” I was fortunate to be under such a general. I had nothing to do but to see that our horses, were provided for, and seat myself at the table. My general had twelve covers; and, as his aide-de-camp was a little lazy, I said to him, “Do not worry yourself; I will attend to everything.” Thus all went well at our quarters. We had provisions enough for the winter, both for ourselves and our horses. I was not exempt from the duty of carrying despatches, however when my turn should come. The Emperor held reviews every day. He sent off trophies from Moscow, among them the cross from the tomb of the Czars. It was a sight, the scaffolding erected to take down that cross. Men on it looked like dwarfs. This cross was thirty feet high, and was of solid silver. All the trophies were packed in large wagons, and sent to General Claparede with a battalion of men as escort, and he consequently was the first to start out on the retreat. The Jews informed our soldiers of the hiding-places dug in the ground. Their cupidity caused great wrong to be done to the unfortunate people. No one in the army put any stop to the robbery. It was dreadful to see it.
I was sent to a village, eighteen or twenty leagues from Moscow, to carry orders to Prince Murat. I came upon a body of cavalry in retreat,-our men, on bare-back horses. They had been surprised while grooming their horses. I could not find Prince Murat; he had run off in his shirt. It was a bad sight to see those fine horsemen running for their lives. I asked for the prince. “He is captured,” they replied; “they took him in his bed.” And I could learn nothing further. The Emperor heard of it at once through Nansouty's aides-de-camp, and on my return from this miserable mission, I found the army en route to aid Murat. I was half-dead, and my horse could no longer walk. Fortunately, my servant procured me two more very good ones, and I was remounted. The Emperor had ordered that his household and all his office staff should be sent from Moscow on the 23rd of October, and join him at Mojaisk. It is impossible to give any idea of the rapidity of the execution of his orders. The preparations for this move were completed in three hours. We went to the house of our princess, and there we found some good horses, which had been concealed in a cellar. We mounted two superb ones, and immediately hitched them to a fine carriage. While this was being done, I got the provisions ready: about ten loaves of sugar, a good-sized box of tea, some elegant cups, and a copper to melt the sugar in. We had a carriage-load of provisions.
At three o'clock we left Moscow. It was scarcely possible to make our way, for the road was blocked up with carriages, and all the army plunderers were there in great numbers. When we had gone about three leagues from Moscow we heard a tremendous report. The shock was so great that the earth shook under our feet. It was said that there were sixty tons of powder under the Kremlin, with seven trains of powder, and some sort of contrivance fixed on the casks. Our seven hundred brigands, who had been captured match in hand, met their just punishment. They were all criminals from the prisons.
There was a line of carriages on the road twelve leagues long. By the time I had reached our first halting-place, I had had carriage enough. I had all our provisions put on horses, and burned up the carriage. After that we could pass everywhere. It was with the greatest possible difficulty that we at last reached the headquarters beyond Mojaisk. The next day the Emperor went over the battlefield of the Moskwa, and sighed when he saw the dead still unburied. On the 31st of October, at four o'clock in the afternoon, he reached Wiazma. The Russian winter set in with all its severity on the 6th of November. The Emperor made frequent marches in the midst of his guard, following his carriage on foot, with an iron-shod cane in his hand; and we went along the side of the road with the cavalry officers. In a dispirited condition we reached Smolensk on the 9th of November. The halting-places were miserably supplied; the horses died of hunger and cold, and when we came to any cottages, they devoured the thatch. The cold was already intense, seventeen degrees below zero. This occasioned great losses to the army. Smolensk and the environs were filled with the dead. I took every possible care of myself. Our horses fell down upon the ice. As we were passing a camping-place, I got hold of two axes, and took the shoes off my horses, and they did not slip any more. I had furnished myself with a little pot for making tea. When we reached the place where the Emperor stopped, I built a good fire put my general in front of it to thaw himself, and then put the copper pan on the fire to melt some snow. What bad water snow makes when melted in the midst of smoke! When my water was boiling, I put in a handful of tea. I broke some sugar, and then the pretty cups did service. We had our tea every day. All the way to Wilna I did not want for friends; they followed my boiler, and I had ten loaves of sugar. There were three captains, and only death separated us, which means that I alone am left alive.
I followed my general, always as near as possible to the old guard and the Emperor. When we were attacked by the Russians, it was necessary to concentrate as much as possible. Every day the Cossacks burst out with shouts on the road, but, as our men were armed, they dared not approach us; they merely stationed themselves along the road to see us pass. But they slept in good quarters, and we on the snow. We left Smolensk with the Emperor on the 14th of November. On the 22nd he learned that the Cossacks had just seized upon the bridgehead at Borisow, and that we should have to effect the passage of the Beresina. We came out past the great bridge which the Russians had half burned; they were on the other side waiting for us in the woods and in the snow. Though we had not exchanged fire once, we were already in great destitution. At one o'clock in the afternoon of the 26th of November the right-hand bridge was finished, and the Emperor immediately ordered the Duke of Reggio's corps and Marshal Ney with the cuirassiers to cross over before him. The artillery of the guard went over with their two corps, and crossed a marsh, which was fortunately frozen. In order to be able to reach a village, they drove the Russians back into the woods on the left, and thus gave the army time to cross, on the 27th The Emperor crossed the Beresina at one o'clock in the afternoon, and took up his headquarters in a little hamlet. The army continued to cross the river during the nights of the 27th and 28th The Emperor sent for Marshal Davoust, and I was appointed to guard the head of the bridge, and allow only the artillery and ammunition to go over. The marshal was on the right side and I on the left. When all the ammunition had gone over, the marshal said to me, “Come on, my brave fellow; let us rejoin the Emperor.” We crossed the bridge and the frozen marsh; it was strong enough to bear our ammunition, without which all would have been lost.
During our wearisome watch, Marshal Ney had driven off the Russians, who came back again in order to cut off our route. Our troops had surprised them in the midst of the wood, and that battle cost them dear. Our brave cuirassiers brought them back all covered with blood; it was pitiful to see them. We came to a beautiful plateau. The Emperor reviewed the prisoners. The snow fell so heavily that every one was covered with it; we could not see one another.
But behind us a frightful scene was being enacted. After we had left the bridge the Russians directed the fire of their batteries upon the crowd which surrounded the bridges. From our position we could see these unfortunate creatures rush for the bridges; then the wagons overturned, and all were swallowed up under the ice. No one could give any idea of this sight. The bridges were burned the next day at half-past eight o'clock. Immediately after reviewing the prisoners, the Emperor sent for me. “Start at once; carry these orders by the road to Wilna; here is a guide upon whom you can rely. Make every effort to get there by daybreak to-morrow.” He had my guide questioned. A reward was given him in my presence and to each of us was given a good Russian horse. I set out on a fine road, white with snow, on which our horses did not slip. At night we came to a wood, and, as a precaution, I tied a stout cord round my guide's neck, lest he should get away from me. He said to me, “Bac, sac,” which meant “That is a good idea.” At last I had the good fortune to reach my destination without any mishap. I dismounted, and my guide introduced me to the mayor, who had our horses put in a barn. I gave him my despatches; he offered me a glass of schnapps, and, first tasting it himself, he said, “Drink,” in French. He broke the seal of my package, and said to me, “I could not possibly collect the immense quantity of provisions which your sovereign demands of me within three leagues of this city. There is a great deal in my district, but it would require a month to do it.”—“That is none of my business.”—“All right,” said he, “I will do my best.”
But he had no time to say more. The man who had taken my horse to the barn began to scream, “Cossacks, Cossacks!” I expected to be captured. The worthy mayor led me out of his cabinet into an ante-chamber, turned suddenly to the right, and, taking me by the shoulders and telling me to stoop, pushed me into the oven. I had no time for reflection. The oven was close to the ground under a vault, very long and deep; it was already lighted, but was not too warm, and so I could stand it. I had no time to go back. I knelt down on my right knee and stayed. I was in a state of great anxiety. This excellent mayor had had the presence of mind to take some wood and put it in front of the entrance to the oven, so as to conceal me. This was no sooner done than some officers entered the mayor's house; but they passed by the door of the oven where I was awaiting my fate. The minutes seemed ages; my hair stood on end; I thought I was lost. How long time seems when one is in suspense!
At last I heard all the officers leave, passing by my place of refuge. A terrible shuddering seized me. I thought I was lost; but Providence watched over me. They had seized upon my despatches, and had gone to join their regiment at the end of the village so as to go to the place indicated in my despatches. (I learned afterwards that the Emperor had sacrificed me in order to have my despatches captured and deceive the enemy.) The worthy mayor came to me: “Come out,” said he, “the Russians have gone off with your despatches, and to stop the advance of your army. Your road is open.”
When I got out of the oven, I threw my arms around that generous man's neck, and said to him, “I shall inform my sovereign of your conduct.” After having taken a glass of schnapps, he gave me some bread, which I put into my pocket. I found my horse at the gate, and, starting off at a gallop, I flew like the wind for a league. At last I began to go more moderately, for my horse was giving out. I thought no more of my guide who was left in the village. What joy when I saw our scouts! I began to breathe freely, and cried out, “Saved, saved!” and then I felt for my piece of bread, and devoured it. The army was marching silently; the horses slipped, for the roads had been made smooth by the tramping of the troops. The cold became more and more intense. At last I came up to the Emperor and his staff; I went up to him, hat in hand. “So here you are! And your mission?”—“It is accomplished, sire.”—“What! they did not capture you? And your despatches, where are they?”—“In the hands of the Cossacks.”—“What! Come nearer. What do you say?”—“I have told you the truth. When I reached the mayor's house I gave him my despatches, and a moment after the Cossacks arrived, and the mayor hid me in his oven.”—”In his oven?” —“Yes, sire; and I was not very comfortable; they passed right by me when they went into the mayor's cabinet; they took my despatches, and ran off.”—“It is strange, my old grouser, that you escaped being captured.”—“The brave mayor saved me.”—“I shall see him, this Russian.”
He related my adventure to his generals, and said, “Set him down for a week's rest, and pay his expenses double.” I rejoined General Monthyon, and found my horses and sugar safe. I was half-dead of hunger. That night we came to a place about a mile from where my despatches had been taken by the Cossacks. He sent for the mayor, and had a conference with him. The mayor conducted him to within a league of his village, and I gave him, as he passed, a good grasp of the hand. “I love the French,” said he. “Farewell, brave officer.” To this day I bless that man who saved my life.
The cold grew more and more intense; the horses in the bivouacs died of hunger and cold. Every day some were left where we had passed the night. The roads were like glass. The horses fell down, and could not get up. Our word-out soldiers no longer had strength to carry their arms. The barrels of their muskets were so cold that they stuck to their hands. It was twenty-eight degrees below zero. But the guard gave up their knapsacks and muskets only with their lives. In order to save our lives, we had to eat the horses that fell down on the ice. The soldiers opened the skin with their knives, and took out the entrails, which they roasted on the coals, if they had time to make a fire, and, if not, they ate them raw. They devoured the horses before they died. I also ate this food as long as the horses lasted. As far as Wilna, we travelled by short stages with the Emperor. His whole staff marched along the sides of the road. The men of the demoralized army marched along like prisoners, without arms or knapsacks. There was no longer any discipline or any human feeling for one another. Each man looked out for himself. Every sentiment of humanity was extinguished. No one would have reached out his hand to his father; and that can be easily understood. For he who stooped down to help his fellow would not be able to rise again. We had to march right on, making faces to prevent our noses and ears from freezing. The men became insensible to every human feeling. No one even murmured against our misfortunes. The men fell frozen stiff all along the road. If, by chance, any of them came upon a bivouac of other unfortunate creatures who were thawing themselves, the new-comers pitilessly pushed them aside, and took possession of their fire. The poor creatures would then lie down to die upon the snow. One must have seen these horrors in order to believe them.
I can certify that on the retreat from Moscow we marched more than forty leagues without knapsacks or guns. But it was at Wilna that we suffered most. The weather was so severe that the men could no longer endure it; even the ravens froze.
During this fearful cold, I was sent to the general who had charge of the trophies taken at Moscow, with an order to have them thrown into a lake to the right of our road. At the same time the treasure was abandoned to the stragglers. The wretches seized upon it, and burst open the casks. Three-fourths of them were frozen to death beside their plunder. Their burdens were so heavy that they fell. I rejoined my post after the greatest possible difficulty, and that I did so was owing to my unshod horse, which did not slide. I am sure that a man reduced to the same condition of weakness could not have been able to carry five hundred francs. I had seven hundred francs of my savings in my portmanteau. My horse was so weak that he began to go to sleep. I perceived this, and, taking my bag, I went to see my old friends the grousers in their bivouac, and proposed to them to rid me of my seven hundred francs. “Give me twenty francs in gold, and I will give you twenty-five francs.” They all did so with pleasure, and I was unburdened, for I would have left them on the spot. All my fortune now consisted of eighty-three napoleons, and this saved my life.
At Smorgoni the Emperor bade farewell, before leaving the army, to such of the general officers as he could gather round him. He left at seven o'clock in the evening, accompanied by Generals Duroc, Mouton, and Caulaincourt. We remained under the command of the King of Naples, and were not too happy in our minds, for, though he was always the first to draw a sabre or brave danger, he may truly be said to have been the executioner of our cavalry. He kept his divisions constantly mounted all along the route, and they were more than enough to keep the Cossacks at bay; but our cavalry were dying of starvation, and when night came, the unfortunate soldiers were not able to use their horses to go for forage. For himself, the King of Naples had twenty or thirty relays of horses, and every morning he started out on a fresh one. He was, indeed, the handsomest horseman in Europe; but without foresight, for it was not a question of being an intrepid soldier, but of being able to economize his resources. He lost us (I heard this said to Marshal Davoust) forty thousand horses through his mismanagement. It is always wrong to blame one's officers; but the Emperor could have made a better selection. There were among our leaders two warriors, rivals in glory, Marshal Ney and Prince Beanharnais, who saved us from the greatest perils by their coolness and courage.
The King of Naples went on to Wilna; he arrived there on the 8th of December, and we with the guard, on the 10th It was night when we came to the gates of the city, which were barricaded with pieces of wood. We had the greatest difficulty in entering. I and my comrade were lodged in a school, well warmed. When I went to my general for orders, he said, “Be ready at four in the morning to leave the city, for the enemy is now arriving on the heights, and we shall be bombarded at daylight. Do not lose any time.” As soon as I returned to my lodgings, I made my preparations to leave. I awoke my comrade, who would not listen to me. He had got thawed, and preferred to remain in the enemy's hands. At three o'clock I said to him, “Let us go.” “No,” said he, “I shall stay where I am.”—“Very well, I shall kill you if you don't follow me.”—“All right; kill me.” I drew my sabre, and dealt him some stout blows with it, thus forcing him to follow me. I loved my brave comrade, and would not leave him to the enemy.
We had scarcely got ready to leave when the Russians forced the Witepsk gate; we had barely time to get out. They committed the most horrible acts in the town. All the unfortunate men who were still asleep in their lodgings, were murdered, and the streets were strewn with the dead bodies of Frenchmen. Here the Jews were the executioners of our Frenchmen. Fortunately, the intrepid Ney put a stop to the confusion. The right and left wings of the Russian army had passed by the city, and saw us go by; they were stopped by a few rounds from our guns, but the rout was complete. When we reached the mountain of Wilna the confusion was at its height. All the material of the army and the Emperor's carriages were on the ground. The soldiers helped themselves to gold and silver plate. All the chests and casks were burst open. What a quantity of plunder was left on that spot! No, a thousand times no; never was there such a sight!
We marched on to Kowno, which place the King of Naples reached on the 11th of December, at midnight; he left there on the 13th at five o'clock in the morning, and went to Gumbinnen with the guard. In spite of the efforts of Marshal Ney, seconded by General Gérard, Kowno at once fell into the hands of the Russians. A retreat was urgently necessary; Marshal Ney effected it at nine o'clock at night, after having destroyed all that remained of our artillery, ammunition, and provisions, and having set fire to the bridges. It may be said in praise of Marshal Ney that he kept the enemy at bay at Kowno by his own bravery. I saw him take a musket and five men and face the enemy. The country ought to be grateful for such men. We had the good fortune to be under the command of Prince Eugene, who made every effort to reunite our scattered forces. At Koenigsberg we came upon some Prussian sentries, who insulted our unfortunate soldiers, who were without arms; all the doors were closed against them, and they died on the pavement of cold and hunger. I went at once with my two comrades to the town-hall. No one was allowed to approach. I showed my decoration and my epaulets, and was allowed to enter through a window. Three billets for lodgings were given me, and we had the best apartments. No one spoke to us; they only stared at us. They were at dinner. Seeing this indifference on their part, I took out twenty francs, and said, “Have something got for us to eat; we will give you twenty francs a day.”—“All right,” said the host. “I will have a fire made in the stove in this room, and give you some straw and some coverings.”
Some broth was served us immediately, and we were fed for thirty francs a day, not including the coffee (a franc for each man). This Prussian was kind enough to stable our horses and feed them. The poor beasts had had no hay and oats since they left Wilna; how glad they were to bite into a bundle of hay! And we, so happy to sleep on some straw in a warm room.
I sent at once for a doctor and a bootmaker to examine my left foot, which had been frozen. I had to consult the doctor, so as to have a boot made. It was decided to have one made lined with rabbit skin and to leave my foot a prisoner in it, after having cut my boot open to dress my foot. “Make the boot to-night,” said I. “I will pay you twenty francs.”—“To-morrow, at eight o'clock, you shall have it.” So then I kept my boots on. The next day the doctor and bootmaker came; the former cut open my boot, and there was my foot, looking like a new-born baby's,—no nails, no skin, but in a perfect condition. “Your foot is saved,” said the doctor.
He had the host and his wife called up. “Come,” said he, “and see a chicken's foot. I must have some linen to wrap it up.” They gave me very willingly some fine white linen. My foot was put into my boot, and laced up. I asked the doctor how much I owed him. “I am paid,” said he. “This service is free.”—“But “—“No buts, if you please.”
I held out my hand to him. “I will tell you,” said he, “how to make it well. Your foot will be very sensitive to heat and cold; do not expose it to the air; let it remain a long time just as it is, but when the season for strawberries comes, take and mash up a plateful of them, at least two or three pounds, and make a compress, and bind it to your foot. Continue to do this during the strawberry season, and you will never feel any pain.”—“Thank you, doctor. And for you, Master Cobbler, here are twenty francs.”—“Not so,” said he. “My expenses only, if you please.”—“How much?”—“Ten francs.”—“Why, you two have conspired together.”—“Well,” said two of my comrades, “let us have a rum punch.”—“ No,” said they, “time is precious, we must return. Farewell, brave Frenchman.”
I followed the physician's directions, and have never felt any inconvenience from my injury; but it cost me twelve francs' worth of strawberries.
I went to the palace to take Count Monthyon's orders; there I found Prince Eugene and Prince Berthier. Count Monthyon said to the minister of war, “I wish to have transport-officer Contant for my aide-de-camp, and to have his place filled by Lieutenant Coignet; he is a good business man. I need him to rid the army of all the vehicles which are needless and in the way.”
The minister immediately appointed me transport officer at headquarters, December 28, 1812. I was no longer afraid of being posted to the line. We remained at Koenigsberg a few days to reunite all the remnants of that grand army, now reduced to a small corps. We started on the march to Berlin, which had to be promptly evacuated so as to fall back upon Magdeburg. There the army halted for a while. I received orders to have plates of steel with escutcheons on them made for those who had a right to keep their carriages; their names and titles were engraved on the plates, and also their rank in the order of march. These plates cost three francs. The viceroy himself was not exempt from this order. I had barely time enough to give out my plates before I started off. I said to myself, “I am going to have a jolly time disencumbering the army.” On the Elbe, Prince Eugene reunited the army in a fine position. Provisions were distributed every night; he looked after everything, and never allowed three days to pass without going to the out-posts to reconnoitre the enemy, and greeted them, every morning for three months, with eight pieces of cannon, fifteen or sixteen thousand infantry, and eight hundred cavalry. This little affair over, he ordered a retreat, always bringing up the rear himself; he never left one man behind him. Yet he was always pleasant. A fine soldier on the field of honour. He held his position for three months without falling back.
I received the following letter;
MONSIEUR COIGNET,—I send you enclosed a copy of the Moniteur, which contains the conditions prescribed by the Emperor with regard to equipages in the army. The Prince viceroy intends to issue an order for the day on the subject, but in the mean time, you are to notify those persons who are not to have carriages hereafter, that, on the 15th of this month, their carriages are to be burned.
Signed: The general of division, chief of the major-general's staff.
I went to the general's office, and said to him, “This is a strict order, general.”—”I am going to rid the army of its incumbrances. No one is to be let off! I will give you some military police, and all the carriages which are not marked as exempt you are to have burned. I have got these looters now; I shall take away their stolen horses, and turn them over to our artillery.”—“You have the authority to do this, but it will be a stormy duty for me.”—“I shall be at your back. Let them come here and complain! I will receive them. Leave them their packhorses, and give the rest to the artillery. Off you go! the prince depends upon you.”