Napoleonic Literature
The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot - Volume I
Chapter XXV


MY mission being at an end, I returned to Marshal Augereau and passed the whole month of September at Frankfort. We prepared for war by getting all the amusement we could, for we thought that, nothing being more uncertain than soldiers' lives, they had better make haste to enjoy them.

Meanwhile, the different divisions of the Grand Army were concentrating on the banks of the Main. The Emperor had just reached Würzburg, and his guard was crossing the Rhine. The Prussians on their side were marching, and on their way through Saxony had compelled the Elector to join his forces with theirs, this compulsory and therefore insecure alliance being the only one which the King of Prussia possessed in Germany. It was true he was expecting the Russians, but their army was still in Poland, behind the Niemen, more than 150 leagues from the country where the destiny of Prussia was to be decided. It is difficult to conceive the blundering which, during seven years, controlled the decisions of the Cabinets of states hostile to France. We have seen how, in 1805, the Austrians attacked us on the Danube, and allowed themselves to be beaten in detail at Ulm, instead of waiting till the Russians could join them and Prussia declare against Napoleon. Now, in 1806, we had these same Prussians; who a year before might, by joining them, have hindered the defeat of the Austrians and Russians, not only declaring war against us when we were at peace with the Cabinet of Vienna, but imitating its fault by attacking us without awaiting the Russians. Then, three years later, in 1809, the Austrians renewed the war against Napoleon single-handed, just when he was at peace with Prussia and Russia. This want of unanimity secured victory for France. Unhappily it was not so in 1813, when we were crushed by the coalition of our enemies.

The King of Prussia's mistake in 1806, in declaring war against Napoleon before the Russians had come up, was aggravated by the fact that his troops, although well taught, were so badly organised that they were not fit to match themselves with ours. In fact, at this period a company or troop in Prussia was the property of its captain. Men, horses, arms, accoutrements, everything belonged to him. He farmed it at the price of a fixed sum paid to the Government. Thus, all losses being at their expense, it was to the interest of the captains to spare their companies, whether on the march or on the battle-field; and as the number of men which they were bound to have was fixed, they enrolled in the first place all the Prussians who presented themselves, and then all the vagabonds in Europe whom their agent's sergeants could enlist in the neighbouring states. But as this did not suffice, the Prussian recruiting sergeants carried off a great number of men by main force, and these having become soldiers without their own consent were bound to serve till they were past the age for service. Then they were given a beggar's licence, for Prussia was too poor to give them a hospital or retiring pension. During their period of service these soldiers were mingled with genuine Prussians, the number of whom had to be at least half of the strength of each company in order to prevent revolts.

To maintain an army compounded of such heterogeneous elements an iron discipline was needed, wherefore corporal punishment was inflicted for the slightest fault. The numerous non-commissioned officers, all Prussians, carried a cane, which they frequently used. According to the recognised saying, they reckoned one cane to every seven men. Among the foreign soldiers desertion was mercilessly punished with death. You may imagine the terrible position of these foreigners, who, having enlisted in a moment of drunkenness, or been carried off by force, found themselves far from their own country, and in a bitter climate, condemned to be Prussian soldiers—that is to say, slaves during their whole lives. And what lives they were! With scarcely food enough to keep them alive, sleeping on straw, very lightly clothed, no cloaks, even in the coldest winter, and with pay insufficient to meet their wants. Indeed, they did not wait to beg until they had received licence to do so with their discharge, for when out of sight of their officers they would put out their hands. Both at Potsdam and Berlin it has happened more than once that grenadiers at the King's very gate have begged alms of me. The officers, for the most part, were educated and did their duty well; but half of them were foreigners, poor gentlemen from almost every country in Europe, who, having taken service only to get a living, felt no patriotism or devotion towards Prussia. Naturally, most of them deserted her when she was in trouble. Again, promotion going only by seniority, the great majority of the Prussian officers were old; and worn out, and in no state to undergo the hardships of war. It was with an army thus composed and thus officered that the conquerors of Egypt, Italy, and Germany were to be withstood. Madness it was indeed, but the Cabinet of Berlin, misled by the victories which the great Frederick had gained with mercenary troops, thought that it was going to be the same thing again, forgetting that the times had greatly changed.

On October 6 Marshal Augereau and the 7th corps left Frankfort to march towards the frontier of Saxony, of which the Prussians were already in occupation. It was a splendid autumn, a little frost at night and a brilliant sun by day. My little establishment was well organised. I had a good campaigning servant, François Woirland, an old soldier of the Black Legion, a regular swashbuckler and a grand marauder. But these make the best servants on campaign, for with them one never runs short of anything. I had three good horses, good accoutrements, a little money. I was very well in health, so I marched gaily to meet coming events.

Our road lay by Aschaffenburg, whence we went on to Würzburg. There we found the Emperor, who held a march-past of the troops of the 7th corps, amid great enthusiasm. Napoleon, who was in possession of notes about all the regiments, and knew how to use them cleverly so as to flatter the self-esteem of everyone, said, when he saw the 44th of the line, 'Of all the corps in my army you are the one where there are most stripes, so your three battalions count in my eyes for six.' The soldiers replied with enthusiasm, 'We will prove it before the enemy.' To the 78th light infantry, composed mainly of men from Lower Languedoc and the Pyrenees, the Emperor said, 'There are the best marchers in the army; one never sees a man of them fallen out, especially when the enemy has to be met.' Then he added, laughing, 'But to do you justice in full, I must tell you that you are the greatest rowdies and looters in the army.' 'Quite true, quite true,' answered the soldiers, every one of whom had a duck, fowl, or goose in his knapsack. This was an abuse which had to be tolerated, for Napoleon's armies, once on campaign, only received rations at rare intervals, each living on the country as best he could—a method which doubtless had great inconveniences, but also one immense advantage: it allowed us to push constantly forward without being hampered by provision wagons and stores. This gave us a great superiority over our enemies, whose movements depended on the baking or the arrival of bread, on the pace of herds, and the like.

From Würzburg the 7th corps marched to Coburg, where the marshal was quartered in the prince's palace. All the family had fled at our approach, except the prince himself, a celebrated Austrian field-marshal. The old soldier had fought the French long enough to estimate their character, and had confidence enough in them to await them. His confidence was not misplaced, for the marshal sent him a guard of honour, made a point of returning his visit, and ordered that the greatest respect should be shown him.

We were now at no great distance from the Prussian, the King being at Erfurt. The Queen was with him, and rode about the army on horseback, seeking to kindle the army by her presence. Napoleon, conceiving that this was not a part befitting a princess, published in his bulletins some very insulting remarks about her. The French and Prussian out-posts met at length on October 9, at Schleitz, and a slight engagement took place under the Emperor's eyes, where the enemy was beaten—an ill-omened commencement. On the same day, Prince Lewis, with a force of 10,000 men, was in position at Saalfeld, a town on the banks of the Saale in the middle of a plain, which is reached by crossing very steep hills. As the divisions of Lannes and Augereau had to advance on Saalfeld through these hills, if Prince Lewis wished to await the French, he should have taken up his position in that country, full as it was of narrow gorges where a few troops could stop much greater numbers. He neglected this advantage, however, probably owing to his persuasion that the Prussian troops were worth very much more than the French. He even carried his contempt of all precautions so far as to place part of his forces with a marshy brook in their rear, thus making their retreat in case of reverse very difficult. General Muller, an old Swiss officer in the Prussian service, whom the King had attached to his nephew in order to check his impetuosity, made, indeed, some remarks to this effect, which Prince Lewis took in bad part, adding that there was no need of so many precautions to beat the French—it was enough to fall upon them as soon as they appeared.

They appeared on the morning of the 10th, Lannes' division leading; Augereau's, which followed, did not come up in time to take part in the battle. Nor was its presence required, Lannes' force being more than sufficient. Augereau, while waiting for his division to issue into the open ground, took up his position with his staff on a hillock, from which we had a perfect view of the plain and could follow with the eye all the turning points of the battle.

Prince Lewis might yet have fallen back on the Prussian force which was occupying Jena, but having been the prime instigator of the war it seemed to him unseemly to retire without fighting. He was cruelly punished for his temerity. Marshal Lannes, cleverly taking advantage of the high ground under which Prince Lewis had so imprudently deployed his troops, first played upon them with artillery, and when they were shaken sent forward his masses of infantry, who, rapidly descending from the high ground, poured like a torrent on the Prussian battalions and broke them up on a moment. Prince Lewis losing his head, and probably seeing the mistake he had made, tried to repair it by putting himself at the head of his cavalry, with which he impetuously charged the 9th and 10th Hussars. At first he gained a slight advantage, but our Hussars, returning to the charge with fury, threw back the Prussian cavalry into the marshes, their infantry at the same time flying in confusion before ours. In the middle of the scuffle Prince Lewis found himself engaged hand-to-hand with a sergeant of the 10th Hussars, named Guindet. Being summoned to surrender he answered with a sword-stroke which laid open the Frenchman's face, whereupon the other ran the prince through the body, killing him on the spot.

After the battle and the complete rout of the enemy the prince's body was recognised, and Marshal Lannes had it borne with due honour to the Castle of Saalfeld. There it was handed over to the princely family of that name, connected with the royal house of Prussia, with whom Prince Lewis had passed the previous day and evening in making merry over the coming of the French, and even, it was said, in giving a ball—and now he was brought back to them vanquished and slain! I saw his body the next day, laid out on a marble table; he was naked to the waist, still wearing his leather breeches and his boots, and seemed to sleep. He was indeed a handsome man. I could not refrain from sad reflections on the mutability of human affairs as I gazed on the remains of this young man, born on the steps of the throne, but lately so beloved and so powerful. The news of his death caused consternation in the enemy's army, and, indeed, throughout Prussia.

The 7th corps passed October 11 at Saalfeld. In the next two days we reached Kala, where we fell in with some fragments of the Prussian troops who had been beaten before Saalfeld. Marshal Augereau attacked them, but they offered little resistance, and laid down their arms. Among the rest was captured Prince Henry's regiment, in which Augereau had once been a private. As it was difficult in Prussia for any except men of high rank to become field-officers, and as sergeants were never promoted to sub-lieutenant, his company had still the same captain and the same sergeant-major. The Prussian captain, brought by a whim of fortune back into the presence of his former soldier, now become a marshal and distinguished for many brilliant services, recognised Augereau perfectly, but behaved like a man of sense, and talked to the marshal as if he had never seen him. The marshal invited him to dine, made him sit next to him, and, knowing that his baggage had been captured, lent him all the money that he required, and gave him introductions in France. How curious must that captain's reflections have been! But no words can paint the astonishment of the old sergeant-major at seeing his former subordinate covered with decorations, surrounded by a numerous staff, and in command of an army corps. It seemed to him like a dream. The marshal was much less reserved with this man than he had been with the captain; he addressed him by name, shook hands with him, and gave him twenty-five louis for himself, and two for every one of the soldiers of his time who were still in the company. This struck us as in very good taste.

The marshal reckoned on sleeping at Kala, which is only three leagues from Jena, but just as night was falling the 7th corps received orders to proceed at once to the latter town, which the Emperor had entered without opposition at the head of his guard and of Lannes' troops. The Prussians had abandoned the place in silence, but it had been set on fire, probably by some candles having been forgotten and left in stables, and part of the unhappy city was a prey to the spreading flames when Augereau's corps entered about midnight. It was sad to see the inhabitants, women and old men, half-clothed, carrying away their children and trying to escape destruction by flight, while our soldiers, whom their duty and the neighbourhood of the enemy did not allow to leave the ranks, remained impassible with shouldered arms, like people who made light of the fire in comparison with the dangers to which they were shortly to be exposed.

As the fire had not reached the quarter of the town by which the French were arriving, the troops could move about freely, and while they were being massed in the open spaces in the larger streets the marshal and his staff took up their quarters in a handsome-looking house. I was just returning from carrying an order when I heard piercing cries coming from a neighbouring house, one door of which was open. I hurried up, and guided by the cries made my way into a handsome suite of rooms, where I perceived two charming young ladies of eighteen to twenty years old, in night-dresses, struggling with tour or five Hessian soldiers belonging to the regiments which the Landgrave had sent to join the troops of the French 7th corps. The men were far gone in liquor, but though they did not understand a word of French, and I very little German, the sight of me and my threats produced an affect on them, and being used to the stick from their officers they took without a word the kicks and blows which, in my indignation, I administered to them freely as I drove them down the stairs. Perhaps I was imprudent, for in the middle of the night, in a town where utter disorder prevailed, being all alone with these men, I ran the risk of being killed by them; but they ran away, and I placed a guard from the marshal's escort in one of the lower rooms. Then I returned to the young ladies' rooms; they had hurriedly put on some clothes, and I received from them warm expressions of gratitude. They were the daughters of one of the University professors, and he, having gone with his wife and servants into the quarter that was on fire, to help one of their sisters who had just been confined, had left them all alone, when the Hessian soldiers appeared. One of the girls said to me with much energy, 'You are marching to battle at the moment when you have just saved our honour. God will requite you; be sure that no harm will happen to you.' The father and mother, who came back at the same moment, bringing the young mother and her child, were at first greatly surprised to find me there, but as soon as they learnt the reason of my presence they too heaped blessings upon me. I tore myself away from the thanks of this grateful family to report myself to Marshal Augereau, who was resting in the neighbouring house while waiting his orders from the Emperor.


(If you surfed directly to this page, please go to the Napoleonic Literature Home Page to see the wealth of information that's available on this website.)