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The Memoirs of General the Baron de Marbot

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Napoleon had not only taken into the "Grande Armee" the troops of
Austria and Prussia, but he had lowered the morale of the French
forces by intermingling them with foreign contingents, so that
the various Corps commanded by his marshals contained bodies of
men from every part of Europe, Italians, Poles, Spaniards,
Portuguese, Germans and Croatians. This admixture of races with
different languages, cultures and interests, worked very poorly,
and often hindered the efforts of the French troops. It was one
of the principal causes of the reversals which we suffered.

Chap. 5.

Having left Dresden on the 29th of May, the Emperor made his way
towards Poland via Danzig and the old Prussia, through which his
troops were passing, whom he reviewed whenever he encountered

The army was now organised so that the 23rd mounted Chasseurs
were brigaded with the 24th. This brigade was commanded by
General Castex and formed part of the 2nd Army Corps, commanded
by Marshal Oudinet. I had known General Castex for a long time,
an excellent officer, who treated me very well throughout the
campaign. Marshal Oudinet had seen me at the siege of Genoa when
I was with my father and also in Austria when I was aide-de-camp
to Marshal Lannes, and was well disposed towards me.

On the 20th June, 2nd Corps was given the order to stop at
Insterberg in order to be reviewed by the Emperor. These military
ceremonies were awaited with impatience by those people who hoped
to benefit from the awards distributed on the occasion by
Napoleon. I was among this number. I felt sure that I would be
promoted to the command of the regiment of which I was the acting
commander, for apart from the promises given me by the Emperor,
General Castex and Marshal Oudinet had told me that they intended
to propose me officially, and that Colonel Nougarede was to be
placed, as general, in command of one of the huge remount depots,
which would have to be set up in the rear of the army; but the
bad luck which had, a few months earlier delayed my promotion to
major, also held up my promotion to colonel.

At these reviews, the commanders of regiments were subjected to a
rigourous cross-examination by the Emperor, particularly on the
eve of a campaign; for apart from the usual questions about their
strength in men and horses, their arms etc., he would suddenly
ask a number which were unforeseen and not always easy to answer.
For example: "How many men from such and such a department have
you received in the last two years? How many of your carbines
come from Tulle and how many from Charleville? How many of your
horses are from Normandy, from Brittany, from Germany? What is
the average age of your men, your officers, your horses? How many
men in this company have long-service chevrons? etc...etc."

These questions, which were always posed in an abrupt and
demanding manner, and accompanied by a piercing look,
disconcerted many colonels; but woe to him who hesitated to
reply, he went into Napoleon's bad books. I was so well briefed
that I was able to reply to all his questions, and, after
complementing me on the fine turnout of the regiment, it looked
as if the Emperor was going to promote me to colonel and M. de La
Nougarede to general, when the latter, who with his limbs wrapped
in flannel, had been hoisted onto horseback to follow from afar
the movements of his regiment, which I commanded, hearing himself
called for, came to Napoleon and unwisely angered him by making a
request on behalf of an officer, a member of his family who was
wholly undeserving. This roused a storm of which I suffered the
consequences. The Emperor flew into a rage and ordered the
Gendarmerie to clear the officer in question out of the army, and
leaving M. de La Nougarede in dismay, he went off at the gallop.
So M. de La Nougarede was not made a general.

Marshal Oudinot followed the Emperor to find out what was to
happen to the 23rd, and was told "Major Marbot will continue to
command them." Before reaching the rank of colonel I was destined
to suffer yet another serious wound.

In fairness to M. de La Nougarede, I have to say that he
expressed the liveliest remorse at having been the involuntary
cause of the delay in my advancement. I was sorry for the
difficult position in which this worthy man found himself, for he
felt that he had forfeited the Emperor's confidence, and owing to
his disability he had little hope of restoring himself by his
conduct in the battles which were about to take place.

I was comforted by the fact that the Emperor, on the day of the
review, had awarded all the promotions and the decorations which
I had requested for the officers and other ranks of the 23rd, and
as the gratitude for these favours is always directed to the
commanding officer who has obtained them, the influence which I
was beginning to have in the regiment was greatly increased and
went some way to calm my regrets at not having been awarded
substantive rank for the position which I occupied.

At about this time, I received a letter from Marshal Massena and
another from his wife, the first recommending a M. Renique, and
the second her son, Prosper. I was touched by this double
approach and I responded by accepting the two captains into my
regiment. However, Madame Massena did not carry out her
intention, and Prosper Massena did not go to Russia. In any case
he would not have been able to stand the harsh climate.

The army was soon to reach the frontier of the Russian empire,
and see once more the river Nieman, where we had stopped in 1807.
The Emperor positioned his troops on the left bank of this river
as follows: on the extreme right was the Austrian Corps of Prince
Schwartzenberg, on the border of Galicia near Drogitchin. On
Schwartzenberg's left was King Jerome with two considerable army
corps, between Bialystok and Grodno. Next to them was Prince
Eugene de Beauharnais, with 80,000 men, at Prenn. The Emperor was
in the centre, facing Kovno, with 220,000 men commanded by Murat,
Oudinot, Ney, Lefebvre and Bessieres. The Guard formed part of
this immense body of troops. Finally, at Tilsit, Marshal
Macdonald with 35,000 Prussians formed the left wing. Across the
Nieman was the Russian army of about 400,000 men, commanded by
the Emperor Alexander , or rather by Benningsen, his
chief-of-staff. This force was divided into three parts,
commanded by Generals Bagration, Barclay de Tolly and

Four historians have written about the campaign of 1812. The
first of these was Labaume, a topographer, that is to say,
belonging to a Corps which although part of the armed forces
never engaged in combat, and followed the army only to make maps.
Labaume had never commanded troops and knew nothing of the
practical side of war, so his judgements are almost always
ill-founded, and do an injustice to the French army. However the
work having appeared shortly after the peace of 1814 and the
re-establishment of Louis XVIII, partisan spirit and the desire
for information about the terrible events of the Russian campaign
gave it so much credence that no one tried to refute it, and the
public came to accept its contents as the veritable truth.

The second book to be published was written by Colonel
Boutourlin, an aide-de-camp to the Emperor Alexander. This,
although expressing the Russian point of view, contained some
worthwhile observations, and if there are some inaccuracies, it
is because he did not have access to certain documents, for he is
impartial and has done all he could to discover the truth. The
work is generally esteemed as that of an honest man.

Labaume's book had already been forgotten when in 1825, following
Napoleon's death, General de Segur published a third story of the
Russian campaign. The contents of this book distressed more than
one survivor of the campaign, and even the Russians stigmatised
it as a war novel. In spite of this, M. de Segur enjoyed a great
success, partly because of the purity and elegance of his style
and partly because of the welcome the book was given by the court
and the ultra-royalist party. The former officers of the imperial
army, finding themselves under attack, appointed General Gourgaud
to reply. He did so effectively, but with so much acerbity that
it gave rise to a duel between him and M. de Segur, in which M.
de Segur was wounded. One has to agree that if the latter was
less than charitable towards Napoleon and his army, General
Gourgaud accorded the Emperor too much praise and refused to
recognise any of his faults.

I have no intention of writing another history of the campaign of
1812, but I think I should relate the principal events, since
they form an essential part of my life and times and several of
them have a bearing on what happened to me; but in this brief
resume I shall try to avoid the extremes embraced by Segur and
Gourgaud. I shall neither denigrate nor flatter, I shall be

At a time when the two powerful European empires were about to
come to blows, England, a natural ally of Russia, had a duty to
make every effort to help her to repel the invasion projected by
Napoleon. By disbursing money to the Turkish ministers, the
English cabinet was able to arrange a peace between the Sultan
and Russia, which allowed the latter to recall the army which was
on the frontier of Turkey, an army which played a highly
important role in the war. The English had also contrived a peace
between the Emperor Alexander and Sweden, an ally of France, on
whose goodwill Napoleon counted, the more so because Bernadotte
had just been nominated as the heir apparent, and governed the
country for the King, his adoptive father.

I have already explained how, through a bizarre sequence of
events, Bernadotte was raised to the rank of heir presumptive to
the crown of Sweden. The new Swedish prince, after announcing
that he would always remain French at heart, allowed himself to
be seduced or intimidated by the English, who could have easily
overthrown him. He sacrificed the true interests of his adoptive
country by submitting to the domination of England and allying
himself with Russia in an interview with the Emperor Alexander.
This meeting took place in Abo, a little town in Finland. The
Russians had recently seized this province and they promised to
compensate Sweden by the gift of Norway, which they intended to
take from Denmark, which was a faithful ally of France. So
Bernadotte, far from relying on our army to restore to him his
provinces, accepted these Russian encroachments by ranging
himself with her allies.

If Bernadotte had been willing to support us, the geographical
position of Sweden could have been of great assistance to our
common cause. The new prince did not, however, openly state his
position, as he wanted to see who was going to be the victor, and
he did not declare himself until the following year. Deprived of
the aid of Turkey and Sweden, on whom he had relied to keep the
Russian army occupied, Napoleon's only possible allies in the
north were the Poles, but these turbulent people, whose
forefathers had been unable to agree when they were an
independent state, offered neither moral nor physical support.

In fact, Lithuania and the other provinces which formed more than
a third of the former Poland, having been in Russian hands for
almost forty years, had mostly forgotten their ancient
constitution and had for a long time thought of themselves as
Russian. The nobility sent their sons to join the army of the
Czar, to whom they were too much attached by long custom to
permit any hope that they would join the French. The same
considerations applied to other Poles who in various divisions of
their country had found themselves under the rule of Austria or
Prussia. They were willing to march against Russia, but it was
under the flags and under the command of their new sovereigns.
They had neither love nor enthusiasm for the Emperor Napoleon,
and feared to see their country devastated by war. The grand
duchy of Warsaw, ceded in 1807 to the King of Saxony under the
Treaty of Tilsit, was the only province of the ancient Poland
which retained a spark of national spirit and was somewhat
attached to France, but what was the use of this little state to
the Grande Armee of Napoleon?

Napoleon, however, full of confidence in his army and in his own
ability, decided to cross the Nieman, and so on the 23rd of June,
accompanied by General Haxo and dressed in the uniform of a
Polish soldier of his guard, he rode along its bank, and that
same evening at ten o'clock, set in motion the crossing of the
river by the pontoon bridges, the most important of which had
been laid across the river opposite the little Russian town of
Kovno, which our troops occupied without encountering any

Chap. 6.

At sunrise on the 24th we witnessed a most impressive spectacle.
On the highest part of the left bank were the Emperor's tents.
Around them, on the slopes of the hills and in the valleys,
glittered the arms of a great concourse of men and horses. This
mass, consisting of 250,000 soldiers split into three huge
columns, streamed in perfect order towards the three bridges
which had been thrown across the river, over which the different
corps crossed to the right bank in a prearranged manner. On this
same day the Nieman was crossed by our troops at other points,
near Grodno, Pilony and Tilsit. I have seen a situation report,
covered by notes written in Napoleon's hand, which gives the
official strength of the force which crossed the Nieman as
325,000 men, of whom 155,400 were French and 170,000 allies,
accompanied by 940 guns.

The regiment which I commanded formed part of 2nd Corps,
commanded by Marshal Oudinot, which having crossed the bridge at
Kovno headed immediately for Ianovo. The heat was overpowering.
This, close to nightfall, led to a tremendous storm, and
torrential rain, which drenched the roads and the countryside for
more than fifty leagues around. Happily the army did not see this
as a bad omen, as the soldiers considered violent thunderstorms
were something to be expected in summer. The Russians too, every
bit as superstitious as some of the French, had an unpropitious
omen, for during the night of 23rd-24th of June the Emperor
Alexander escaped with his life when, at a ball in Wilna, the
floor of a room collapsed under the chair on which he was
sitting, at the very hour when the first French boat, carrying a
detachment of Napoleon's troops, reached the right bank of the
Nieman and Russian soil. Be that as it may, the storm had made
the air much cooler and the horses in bivouac suffered from this
and also from eating wet grass and lying on muddy ground. So that
the army lost several thousand from acute colic.

Beyond Kovnow there runs a little river called the Vilia, the
bridge over which had been cut by the Russians. The storm had so
swollen this tributary of the Nieman that Oudinot's scouts were
held up. The Emperor arrived at the same moment as I did at the
head of my regiment. He ordered the Polish lancers to see if the
river was fordable, and in this process, one man was drowned; I
took his name, it was Tzcinski. I mention this because the losses
suffered by the Polish lancers in the crossing of the Vilia have
been grossly exaggerated.

The Russians, however, retreated without waiting for the French
army, which shortly occupied Wilna, the capital of Lithuania. It
was near here that there took place a cavalry encounter in which
Octave de Segur, who had been with me on Massena's staff, was
captured by the Russians while leading a squadron of the 8th
Hussars which he commanded, he was the elder brother of General
the Comte de Segur. On the same day that the Emperor entered
Wilna, Marshal Oudinot's troops came up against Wittgenstein's
Russians at Wilkomir, where the first serious engagement of the
campaign took place. I had not previously served under Oudinot,
and this debut confirmed the high opinion I had of his courage,
without convincing me of his intelligence.

One of the greatest faults of the French at war is to go, without
reason, from the most meticulous caution to limitless confidence.

Now, since the Russians had allowed us to cross the Nieman,
invade Lithuania and occupy Wilna without opposition, it had
become the done thing, amongst certain officers to say that the
enemy would always retreat and would never stand and fight.
Oudinot's staff and the marshal himself frequently stated this,
and treated as fairy tales the information given by the peasants
that there was a large body of Russian troops positioned in front
of the little town of Wilkomir. This incredulity nearly resulted
in disaster, as you will see.

The light cavalry, being the eyes of the army, while on the march
is always in front and on the flanks. My regiment, then, was less
than a league ahead of the infantry, when, having gone a little
way beyond Wilkomir without seeing any sign of the enemy, we were
confronted by a forest of huge pine trees, through which the
mounted men could move with ease but whose branches obscured the
distant view. Fearing an ambush, I sent a single squadron,
commanded by a very capable captain, to investigate. In about 15
minutes he came back and reported that he had seen an enemy army.
I went to the edge of the forest from where I could see, at about
a cannon shot from Wilkomir, behind a stream, a hill on which
drawn up in battle order were 25 to 30 thousand Russian infantry,
with cavalry and artillery.

You may be surprised that these troops did not have in front of
them any outposts or pickets or scouts, but that is how the
Russians operate when they are determined to defend a strong
position. They allow the enemy to approach without any warning of
the resistance they are about to meet, and it is only when the
main body of their opponents comes within range that they open a
ferocious fire with musketry and cannon, which can shatter the
columns of their adversaries. It is a method which has often
produced good results for the Russians; so General Wittgenstein
had prepared this welcome for us.

The situation seemed to me to be so serious that to keep my
regiment out of sight, I ordered them to go back into the forest
while I myself hurried to warn Marshal Oudinot of the danger
which lay ahead.

I found him in some open country, where having dismounted and
halted his troops, he was peacefully eating his lunch in the
midst of his staff. I expected that my report would shake him out
of this false security, but he treated it with an air of
disbelief, and clapping me on the shoulder he called out "Let's
go! Marbot here has discovered thirty thousand men for us to
thump." General Lorencez, the marshal's son-in-law and his
chief-of-staff was the only one to take me seriously; he had once
been aide-de-camp to Augereau and he had known me for a long
time. He came to my defence saying that when the commander of a
unit says "I have seen" he should be believed, and that to take
no notice of information brought by an officer of the light
cavalry was to court disaster. These observations made by his
chief-of-staff caused the marshal to think, and he had started to
question me about the enemy presence, which he still seemed to
doubt, when a staff-captain by the name of Duplessis arrived, all
out of breath, and announced that he had searched the whole area
and had even been into the forest, and had seen not a single
Russian. At this the marshal and his staff began laughing at my
fears, which greatly upset me. Nevertheless, I kept my mouth
shut, certain that before very long, the truth would become

Luncheon being over, the march got under way once more and I
returned to my regiment, which formed the advance-guard. I led
them through the trees as I had done previously, for I could see
what was going to happen the moment we emerged opposite the enemy
positions. In spite of what I had told him, the marshal decided
to go down a wide, dead straight road which ran through the
forest; but he had scarcely reached the edge of the trees when
the enemy, seeing the large group formed by his staff, opened a
running fire from their cannons, which placed opposite the road
could fire directly along it and threw into disorder the gilded
squadron, recently so full of themselves. Fortunately no one was
hit by this fire, but the marshal's horse was killed, as was that
of M. Duplessis and a number of others. I had been amply avenged,
and I must confess, to my shame, that I had difficulty in hiding
my satisfaction at seeing those who had scoffed at my report and
treated as fantasy what I had said about the enemy presence,
taking to their heels under a hail of shot and scrambling over
ditches as best they could to seek shelter behind the great pine
trees! The worthy General Lorencez, whom I had warned to stay in
the forest, laughed heartily at this scene. In fairness to
Oudinot, I must say that once remounted, he came and apologised
for for his behaviour at luncheon, and asked me to brief him on
the Russian positions, and point out a route through the forest
which the infantry might take without being too much exposed to
the enemy's guns.

Several officers of the 23rd who, like me, had been through the
woodland in the morning, were detailed to guide the infantry
divisions. Nevertheless, on their emerging from the trees they
were subjected to a terrible cannonade, which could have been
avoided if, having been warned of the Russian presence, there had
been an attempt to turn one of their flanks, instead of making a
frontal approach. As it was, we were now committed, once we
emerged from the wood, to attacking the most heavily defended
point and taking the bull by the horns.

However, our gallant soldiers engaged the enemy with such
determination that they drove them from all their positions, and
after two hours of fighting they began to retreat. This operation
was not without danger, for, to carry it out, they had to go
through the town and cross the bridge over a very steep-sided
stream. This manoeuvre, always difficult to execute under fire,
started off in an orderly fashion, but our light artillery,
having taken up a position on a height which overlooked the town,
soon, by means of its gunfire, produced disorder among the enemy
columns, which broke ranks and rushed to the bridge. Once they
had crossed the stream, instead of regrouping they fled
helter-skelter over the open ground of the opposite bank, where
the retreat soon became a rout! Only one regiment, that of Toula,
stood its ground on the town side of the bridge. Marshal Oudinot
very much wanted to force a passage across the bridge, to
complete his victory by pursuing the fugitives on the other side
of the stream; but our infantry had hardly reached the suburbs;
it would take them at least 15 minutes to reach the bridge, and
time was precious.

My regiment, which had made a successful charge at the entrance
to the town, had re-formed on the promenade, a short distance
from the stream. The marshal sent word to me to bring them at the
gallop and we had hardly arrived before he ordered me to charge
the enemy battalions which were covering the bridge, then to
cross the bridge and pursue the fugitives on the open ground of
the opposite side. Experienced soldiers know how difficult it is
for cavalry to overcome infantry, who are determined to defend
themselves in the streets of a town. I was well aware of the
dangers of the task which I had been given, but it had to be
done, and without hesitation. I knew also that it is by his
conduct in his first action that a commanding officer gains a
good or a bad reputation amongst his men. My regiment was
composed of battle-hardened troopers: I raised them to the gallop
and, with me at their head, we fell on the Russian Grenadiers,
who stood firm behind their bayonets. They were, however,
overwhelmed by our first impetuous charge, and once their ranks
had been penetrated, my terrible chasseurs using the points of
their sabres inflicted a frightful slaughter. The enemy retreated
to the causeway of the bridge, where we followed them so closely
that, on reaching the other side, they were unable to re-form,
and our men got amongst them, killing all whom they could reach.
When the Russian colonel was killed, his regiment, without
leadership, lost heart, and seeing that the French skirmishers
had now reached the bridge, they surrendered. I lost seven men
killed and some twenty wounded, but captured a flag and two
thousand prisoners. After this action, we advanced onto the open
ground where we took a great number of fugitives, several guns
and many horses.

Marshal Oudinot had watched this action from a vantage point in
the town, and he came to congratulate the regiment, for which he
henceforth had a particular regard, which it well merited. I was
proud to be in command of such men and when the marshal told me
that he intended to recommend me for promotion to colonel, I was
afraid that the Emperor would go back on his original plan, and
post me to the first regiment which became vacant. How strange
are the twists of fortune! The successful action at Wilkomir,
where the 23rd earned such a fine reputation, nearly led on a
later occasion to its destruction, because the courage which it
had displayed at the time resulted in its being chosen to carry
out a mission which was virtually impossible, which I shall
describe shortly. Let us now return to Wilna, where the Emperor
was beginning to meet with some of the difficulties which were to
wreck his whole gigantic undertaking.

The first of these concerned the re-organisation of Lithuania,
which we had just conquered. This had to be carried out in away
which would please not only those provinces which were still
occupied by Russia, but also those of the duchies of Posen and
Galicia, which ancient treaties had incorporated into Prussia and
Austria, Napoleon's allies, whom, for the time being, it was
important not to offend.

The most committed of the noblemen who ruled the various parts of
Poland proposed to Napoleon that they would raise all the
provinces and place at his disposal more than 300,000 men on the
day that he announced officially that all the partitions to which
the country had been subjected were annulled, and that the
kingdom of Poland was reconstituted. The Emperor, although he was
aware of the benefits he would gain from such an armed uprising,
could not conceal from himself the fact that its first result
would be to involve him in war with Austria and Prussia, which,
rather than see themselves deprived of these huge and flourishing
provinces, would join their arms to those of Russia. Above all,
he doubted the constancy of the Poles, who, after dragging him
into war with the three most powerful of the northern nations,
might perhaps fail to deliver their promised support. The Emperor
therefore replied to these propositions that he would not
recognise the kingdom of Poland until the inhabitants of these
huge areas had shown themselves worthy of independence by rising
against their oppressors. This now created a vicious circle,
Napoleon would not recognise the kingdom of Poland until the
Poles took action, and the Poles would not take any action until
he did. An indication that Napoleon, in going to war with
Russia, had no intention other than to enforce the continental
blockade is the fact that he had not brought to the Nieman any
arms or uniforms for the men which the Poles might have supplied.

Be that as it may, some influential noblemen, in an attempt to
force Napoleon's hand, set up a National Diet in Warsaw, which
was attended by a small number of deputies. The first act of this
assembly was to proclaim the Reconstitution and Independence of
the Ancient Kingdom of Poland. The echo of this patriotic
declaration rang throughout all the provinces, whether Russian,
Prussian or Austrian, and for several days it was believed that
there would be an uprising which would probably favour Napoleon,
but this unthinking exaltation did not last long among the Poles,
of whom only a few hundred came to join us. The cooling off was
so rapid that the town of Wilna and its surroundings could
provide no more than twenty men to form a guard of honour for the
Emperor. If the Poles had displayed at this time a hundredth part
of the energy and enthusiasm which they displayed during the
insurrection of 1830-1831, they might have recovered their
independence and their liberty, but, far from coming to the aid
of the French troops, they denied them all necessities, and
during this campaign our soldiers often had to take by force the
food and forage which the inhabitants, and above all the nobles,
hid from us but handed over to the Russians, their persecutors.
This partiality in favour of our enemies enraged our men and gave
rise to some unpleasant scenes which M. de Segur has stigmatised
as disgraceful pillage! It is however impossible to prevent the
weary and wretched soldiers who have received no issue of rations
from commandeering the bread and the livestock which they need
for their survival.

The need to maintain order in the provinces occupied by the army
led the Emperor, in spite of everything, to appoint prefects and
sub-prefects who were chosen from the most enlightened Poles, but
their administration was illusory and no help to the French army.

The main reason for the apathy of the Lithuanian Poles was the
self-interested attachment of the nobility to the Russian
government, which upheld their rights over their peasantry, to
whom they feared the French might award their freedom, for all
those Polish noblemen who talked unceasingly about freedom kept
their peasants in the most brutish serfdom.

Although the concentration of French troops on their frontiers
should have warned the Russians that hostilities were about to
commence, they were nonetheless taken by surprise by the crossing
of the Nieman, which they nowhere opposed. Their army began a
retreat towards the Duna (Dvina) on the left bank of which they
had prepared, at Drissa, an immense entrenched camp. From all
parts the different French Corps followed the Russian columns.
Prince Murat was in command of the cavalry of the advance-guard,
and every evening he caught up with the Russian rear-guard; but
after some skirmishing they made off during the night by forced
marches, without it being possible to bring them to a decisive

Chap. 7.

During the first days of our invasion of Russia, the enemy had
made the very serious mistake of allowing Napoleon to split their
forces, so that the greater part of their army, led by the
Emperor Alexander and Marshal Barclay, had been driven back to
the Duna, while the remainder, commanded by Bagration, was on the
upper Nieman around Mir, eighty leagues from the main body. Cut
off in this way, Bagration tried to join the Emperor Alexander by
going through Minsk; but Napoleon had entrusted the protection of
Minsk to Marshal Davout, who vigourously repelled the Russians
and drove them back to Bobruisk, which he knew was supposed to be
guarded by Jerome Bonaparte, at the head of two corps, amounting
to 60,000 men. Bagration was about to be forced to surrender
when he was saved by the foolishness of Jerome, who had not
accepted the advice which Davout had given him, and failing to
recognise the superior wisdom of the experienced and successful
marshal, had decided to go his own way, whereupon he manoeuvred
his troops so ineptly that Bagration was able to escape from this
first danger. Davout, however, followed him with his usual
tenacity, and caught up with him on the road to Mohilew, where,
although he had no more than 12,000 men, he attacked the 36,000
Russians and defeated them, though admittedly the Russians were
surprised on an area of very broken ground which prevented them
from making the best use of their superior numbers. Bagration was
compelled to cross the Borysthenia much lower down at
Novoi-Bychow, and being now out of reach of Davout he was able to
rejoin the main Russian army at Smolensk.

During the marches and countermarches which Bagration undertook
in his efforts to evade Davout, he surprised the brigade of
French cavalry comannded by General Bordesoulle, and captured
from him the whole of the 3rd Regiment of Chasseurs, whose
colonel was my friend Saint-Mars.

The elimination of Bagration's force would have been of
tremendous benefit to Napoleon, so his fury with King Jerome was
unbounded! He ordered him to quit the army immediately and return
to Westphalia, a rigourous but necessary measur, which had the
effect of greatly damaging King Jerome's reputation in the army.
However, one has to ask if he was entirely to blame? His major
mistake was to think that his dignity as a sovereign should not
permit him to accept the advice of a simple marshal, but Napoleon
knew perfectly well that the young prince had never in his life
commanded so much as a single battalion, nor taken part in the
most minor skirmish, and yet he confided to his care an army of
60,000 men, and this at a somewhat critical juncture. General
Junot, who replaced Jerome, was, before long, also guilty of a
serious blunder.

It was around this time that the Russian emperor sent one of his
ministers, Count Balachoff,to parley with Napoleon, who was still
in Wilna. The purpose of this discussion has never been entirely
clear; there were those who believed it was to arrange an
armistice, but they were quickly disabused by the departure of
the Count, and it appeared later that the English, who had a
tremendous influence in the Russian court and the army, had taken
umbrage at this mission, and fearing that Alexander might be
considering coming to terms with Napoleon, they had loudly
insisted that he should leave the army and return to St.
Petersburg. Alexander accepted this proposal, but ensured that
his brother, Constantine came with him. Left to themselves, and
egged on by the Englishman Wilson, the Russian generals sought to
wage war with a ferocity which might shake the French morale, so
they ordered their troops to lay waste the country behind them as
they withdrew, by burning all the houses and everything else
which they could not carry away.

While Napoleon, from the central point of Wilna, was directing
the various units of his army, the columns led by Murat, Ney,
Montbrun, Nansouty and Oudinot had, on the 15th of July, reached
the river Dvina. Oudinot, who had probably misunderstood the
Emperor's orders, took the unusual step of going down the left
bank of the river, while Wittgenstein and his men were going up
the river on the other side. He arrived opposite Dvinaburg, an
old walled town whose fortifications were in bad repair, where he
hoped to capture the bridge and, having crossed to the other
bank, to attack Wittgenstein from the rear. Wittgenstein,
however, on leaving Dvinaburg, had left behind a strong garrison
with numerous pieces of artillery. My regiment as usual
constituted the advance-guard, which on this day was led by
Marshal Oudinot himself.

The town of Dvinaburg is on the right bank of the river. We
arrived on the left bank, where there is a considerable
fortification which protects the bridge which links it to the
town, from which it is separated by the river, which is very wide
at this point. A quarter of a league from the fortifications,
which Marshal Oudinot claimed were not equipped with cannon, I
came on a Russian battalion whose left flank was protected by the
river, and whose front was covered by the planks and hutments of
an abandoned camp. In such a position the enemy was very
difficult for cavalry to attack; however the Marshal ordered me
to attack them. After I had left it to individual officers to
make their way through the gaps between the huts, I ordered the
charge, but the regiment had hardly gone a few paces amid a
shower of bullets from the Russian infantry when the artillery,
whose existence the Marshal had denied, thundered from the
battlements, to which we were so close that the canisters of
grape-shot were going over our heads before they had time to
burst. A stray ball from one of them went through a fisherman's
hut and broke the leg of the trumpeter who was sounding the
charge by my side!...I lost several men there.

Marshal Oudinot, who had made a serious mistake in attacking a
position which was protected by cannon, hoped to flush out the
Russian infantry by sending in a Portuguese battalion which was
ahead of our infantry; but these foreigners, former prisoners of
war, who had been enlisted somewhat unwillingly into the French
army, made little headway and we remained exposed. Seeing that
Oudinot bore the enemy fire with courage but without giving any
orders, I thought that if this state of affairs continued for a
few minutes more, my regiment was going to wiped out, so I told
my men to spread out and attack the enemy infantry in open order,
with the double aim of driving them out of their position and
preventing the gunners from firing for fear of hitting their own
men, who were intermingled with ours. Cut down by my troopers,
the defenders of the camp fled towards the bridgehead, but the
garrison of this outpost was composed of recent recruits, who,
fearing that we would follow the fugitives into the
fortifications, hurriedly closed the gates; which compelled them
to make for the pontoon bridge in an attempt to reach the other
bank and the shelter of the town of Dvinaburg itself.

The bridge had no guard-rail, the pontoons wobbled, the river was
deep and wide, and I could see the armed garrison on the other
side trying to close the gates! It seemed to me to be folly to
advance any further. Thinking that the regiment had done enough,
I had halted them when the Marshal arrived, shouting "Forward the
twenty-third! Do as you did at Wilkomir! Cross the bridge! Force
the gates! Seize the town!" General Lorencez tried, in vain, to
persuade him that the difficulties were too great, and that a
regiment of cavalry could not attack a fortress, however badly
defended, if to get there they had to cross, two abreast, a
third-rate pontoon bridge; but the Marshal persisted, "They will
be able to take advantage of the disorder and fears of the
enemy," he said, and repeated his order to me to attack the town.
I obeyed; but I was scarcely on the first span of the bridge, at
the head of the leading section of my men, when the garrison,
having managed to close the gates which led to the river, mounted
the ramparts, from where they opened fire on us. The slender line
which we presented offered a poor target for these inadequately
trained men, so that their musket and cannon fire caused us fewer
casualties than I had feared, but on hearing the fortress firing
on us, the defenders of the bridgehead recovered their nerve and
joined in the fray. Oudinot, seeing the 23rd caught between two
fires, at the start of an unstable bridge across which it was
impossible to advance, conveyed to me the order to retreat. The
large gap which I had left between each section allowed them to
turn round without too much confusion, however, two men and their
horses fell into the river and were drowned. In order to regain
the left bank we had to pass once more under the ramparts of the
bridgehead, when we were exposed to a rolling fire which,
fortunately, was aimed by unskilled militia, for if we had been
up against trained marksmen, the regiment could have been wholly

This unsuccessful action, so imprudently undertaken, cost me
thirty men killed and many wounded, and it was to be hoped that
the Marshal would be content with this fruitless effort,
especially in view of the fact that the Emperor had not ordered
him to take Dvinaburg; but, as soon as the infantry had arrived,
he made a new assault on the bridgehead, which had now been
reinforced by a company of Grenadiers, who, at the sound of
firing had hurried from nearby billets, so that our troops were
once more repelled with much greater losses than those suffered
by the 23rd. When the Emperor heard of this abortive attack, he
placed the blame squarely on Marshal Oudinot.

At this time, my regiment was brigaded with the 24th Chasseurs,
and General Castex, who commanded this brigade, had instituted an
admirable routine in our method of operation. Each of the two
regiments took it in turn to form, for twenty-four hours, the
advance-guard if we were approaching the enemy, or the rear-guard
if we were retreating, and to provide all the sentries, pickets
and so on, while the other regiment marched peacefully along,
recovering from the fatigues of the day before and preparing for
those of the morrow, which did not prevent it from going to the
aid of the unit on duty if they came in contact with the enemy.
This system, which was not in the regulations, had the great
advantage of never separating the men from their officers or
their comrades, or placing them under the orders of unknown
commanders and mingling them with troopers of another regiment.
Moreover, during the night, half of the brigade slept, while the
other half watched over them. However, since no system is without
its shortcomings, it could so happen, by chance, that it was the
same regiment which was more often on duty when a serious
engagement occurred, as happened to the 23rd at Wilkomir and
Dvinaburg. It was the sort of luck which we had throughout the
campaign, but we never complained; we came out of all these
events well and were often envied by the 24th, who had fewer
occasions on which to distinguish themselves.

While Oudinot was making his assault on Dvinaburg, the corps
commanded by Ney, as well as the immense body of cavalry
commanded by Murat, were proceeding up the left bank of the Dvina
towards Polotsk, while Wittgenstein's Russian army followed the
same route on the right bank. Being separated from the enemy by
the river, our troops grew careless, and pitched their bivouacs
in the French manner, much too close to its bank. Wittgenstein
had noticed this and he allowed the bulk of the French force to
draw ahead. The last unit in the line of march was Sebastiani's
division, which had as its rear-guard the brigade commanded by
General Saint-Genies, who had served as an officer in the army of
Egypt, and who, although courageous, was not very bright. When he
had reached a some way beyond the little town of Drouia, General
Saint-Genies, on the orders of Sebastiani, put his troops into
bivouac some two hundred paces from the river, which was believed
to be uncrossable without boats. Wittgenstein, however, knew of a
ford, and during the night he made use of it to send across the
river a division of cavalry, which fell on the French troops and
captured almost the entire brigade, including General
Saint-Genies. This forced Sebastiani to hurry upstream with the
rest of his division to make contact with the Corps commanded by
Montbrun. After this swift raid, Wittgenstein recalled his troops
and continued his march up the Dvina. The affair did Sebastiani's
reputation a great deal of harm and drew down on his head the
reproaches of the Emperor.

Shortly after this regrettable incident, Oudinot having been
ordered to leave Dvinaburg and go up the river to rejoin Ney and
Montbrun, his army Corps took the same route as they had done,
and passed the town of Drouia. The Marshal intended to encamp his
force some three leagues further on, but he feared that the enemy
might use the ford to send across large parties of men to harass
the great convoy which trailed behind him, so he decided that
while he made off into the distance, with the main body of the
troops, he would leave behind a regiment of General Castex's
brigade, in the position which had been occupied by General
Saint-Genies, to watch the ford. As my regiment was on duty,
there fell to it the dangerous task of remaining behind at
Drouia, on their own, until the following morning. I knew that
the greater part of Wittgenstein's force had gone up the river,
but I could see that he had left behind, not far from the ford,
two strong regiments of cavalry, a force more than sufficient to
overcome me.

However much I might have wished to carry out the order to set up
my bivouac on the spot used two days previously by Saint-Genies,
this was impossible, for the ground was littered with more than
two hundred bodies in a state of putrefaction, and to this major
reason was linked another not less important. What I had seen and
what I had learned about war had convinced me that the best means
of defending a river against an enemy whose aim is not to
establish himself on the bank which one occupies, is to keep the
main body of one's troops well back from the river edge; firstly
to have timely warning of the enemy's approach, and secondly,
because, as it his intention to make a sudden raid and then
retire smartly, he dare not go too far from the spot where he can
cross back to the other side. So I settled the regiment half a
league from the Dvina, on some slightly undulating ground. I left
only some two-man sentinels on the bank, because, when it is
purely a matter of observation, two men can see as much as a
large picket. Several lines of troopers were placed one after the
other between these sentinels and our bivouac, where, like a
spider at the bottom of its web, I could be rapidly informed by
these threads about what was going on in the area which it was my
duty to guard. I had forbidden all fires and even the lighting of
pipes, and had ordered complete silence.

The nights are extremely short in Russia in the month of July,
but this one seemed very long to me, so afraid was I that I might
be attacked during the hours of darkness by a force superior in
strength to my own. Half of the men were in the saddle, the
remainder were allowing their horses to graze but were ready to
mount if given the signal. All seemed quiet on the opposite bank,
when my Polish servant, who spoke Russian fluently, came to tell
me that he had heard one old Jewish woman who lived in a nearby
house say to another, "The lantern has been lit in the clock
tower at Morki. The attack is going to begin." I had the two
women brought to me, and questioned by Lorentz. They said that,
as they were afraid of their village becoming a battleground for
the two enemies, they had been alarmed to see the lamp lit in the
bell tower of the church at Morki, which, the night before last,
had been the signal for the Russian troops to cross the ford and
attack the French camp.

Although I was prepared for any eventuality, this was a piece of
very useful information. At once the regiment was on horse,
sabres in their hands. The sentinels by the river and the string
of horsemen stretched across the plain passed from man to man, in
low voices, the orders to come back. Two of the boldest
sous-officiers, Prud'homme and Graft, went with Lieutenant Bertin
to see what the enemy was doing. He came back shortly to say that
a large column of Russian cavalry was crossing the ford, and that
already there were some squadrons on our side of the river; but
seemingly taken aback at not finding us camped at the same place
as Saint-Genies, they had halted, fearing, no doubt to go too far
from their only means of retreat; then, having decided to go on,
they were now approaching at a walk, and were not far off.

I immediately set fire to a huge haystack and to several barns
which stood on some high ground, and by the light of the flames I
could easily distinguish the enemy column, consisting of Grodno
Hussars. I had with me about a thousand brave men, and with a cry
of "Vive L'Emperor!" we charged at the gallop towards the
Russians who, taken by surprise by this fierce and unexpected
attack, turned tail and rushed in disorder to the ford. There
they came face to face with a regiment of dragoons who, being
part of their brigade, had followed them and were just emerging
from the river. This resulted in the most fearful confusion which
enabled our men to kill many of the enemy and take many horses.
The Russians tried to recross the ford in a mob to escape from
the fire which my men aimed at them from the bank and a number of
them were drowned. Our surprise attack had so startled the enemy
who had thought to find us asleep, that they put up no
resistance, and I was able to return to our bivouac without
having to regret the death or wounding of any of our number. The
break of day disclosed the field of battle covered by some
hundreds of dead or wounded Russians. I left the wounded in the
care of the inhabitants of the village near which we had spent
the night, and took to the road to rejoin Marshal Oudinot, with
whom I caught up that same evening. The Marshal gave me a hearty
welcome and complemented the regiment on their conduct.

2nd Corps continued its march up the left bank of the Dvina and
in three days arrived opposite Polotsk. There we learned that the
Emperor had at last left Wilna, where he had spent twenty days,
and was heading for Vitepsk, a town of some size, which he
intended to make his new centre of operations.

On quitting Wilna, the Emperor had left the Duc de Bassano as
governor of the province of Lithuania, and General Hogendorp as
military commander. Neither of these two officials was suited to
organising the rear echelons of an army. The Duc de Bassano, a
former diplomat and private secretary, knew nothing about
administration, while the Dutchman Hogendorp, who spoke little
French, and had no idea of our military regulations and customs,
was not likely to have much success with those French who passed
through Wilna or with the local nobility. So the resources
available in Lithuania were of no help to our troops.

The town of Polotsk is situated on the right bank of the Dvina.
Its houses are built of wood and it is dominated by a very large
and splendid college, at that time occupied by the Jesuits,
almost all of whom were French. It is surrounded by an earthwork
fortification, having at one time undergone a siege during the
war waged by Charles XII against Peter the Great. The corps
commanded by Ney, Murat and Montbrun, in order to get from Drissa
to Witepsk, had built a pontoon bridge across the Dvina opposite
Polotsk, which they left for Oudinot's corps, which was going to
take the road for St. Petersburg. It was from here that 2nd Corps
took a different direction to that of the Grande Armee, which we
did not see again until the following winter, at the crossing of
the Beresina.

It would require several volumes to describe the manoeuvres and
the battles of that part of the army which followed the Emperor
to Moscow. I shall therefore limit myself to describing the
salient events as they occur.

On the 25th of July, there took place near to Ostrovno an
advance-guard action, in which our infantry were successful, but
where several regiments of cavalry were too hastily engaged by
Murat. The 16th Chasseurs was amongst this number, and my
brother, who commanded a squadron, was captured. He was taken far
beyond Moscow to Sataroff, on the Volga, where he joined Colonel
Saint-Mars and Octave de Segur. They helped each other to bear
the boredom of captivity, to which my brother was already
accustomed, as he had spent several years in the prisons and
hulks of Spain. The fortunes of war treated us both differently;
Adolphe was captured three times but never wounded, while I was
often wounded but never captured.

While the Emperor, now in control of Wilna, tried in vain to
manoeuvre the Russian army into a decisive battle, Oudinot's
corps, having crossed the Dvina at Polotsk, established itself in
front of this town, facing the numerous troops of General
Wittgenstein, who formed the enemy right wing. Before I describe
the events which took place on the banks of the Dvina, I should,
perhaps, acquaint you with the composition of 2nd Corps.

Marshal Oudinot, who commanded the Corps, had under his orders no
more than 44,000 men, divided into three divisions of infantry,
commanded by Generals Legrand, Verdier and Merle. There were two
brigades of light cavalry. The first, composed of the 23rd and
the 24th regiments of Chasseurs, was commanded by General Castex,
an excellent officer on all counts. The second was formed of the
7th and 20th Chasseurs and the 8th Polish Lancers, commanded by
General Corbineau, a brave but dull-witted officer. These
brigades were not combined into a single division, but were
employed wherever the Marshal thought necessary.

The 24th Chasseurs, with which my regiment was brigaded, was a
first class unit which would have done very well if there had
been a bond of sympathy between the men and their commander.
Unfortunately Colonel A... was very hard on his subordinates who,
for their part, disliked him. This state of affairs led General
Castex to travel and camp with the 23rd, and to unite his field
kitchen with mine, even though he had once served in the 24th.
Colonel A..., big, skillful and always perfectly mounted, showed
up well in engagements featuring the "arme blanche", but was
thought not to be so keen on those in which fire-arms and
artillery were involved. In spite of this, the Emperor recognised
in him qualities which made him undoubtedly the best light
cavalry officer in our European armies. No one had a better eye
for country. Before he set out, he could predict where there
would be obstacles not shown on the map, and where streams, roads
and even paths would lead to, and deduce from enemy movements
forecasts which were almost always correct. In all the aspects of
war, great or small, he was remarkably adept. The Emperor had
often used him for reconnaissance in the past and had recommended
him to Marshal Oudinot, who frequently called him into
consultation; with the result that many of the laborious and
dangerous jobs fell to my regiment.

Chap. 8.

Hardly had the various army corps which had preceded us into
Polotsk left to join the Emperor at Witepsk, when Oudinot,
collecting his troops into a single immense column on the road to
St. Petersburg, marched to attack Wittgenstein's army, which we
believed was positioned ten leagues from us, between two little
towns named Sebej and Newel. At the end of the day we made our
bivouac on the banks of the Drissa. This tributary of the Dvina
is no more than a rivulet at the coaching inn of Siwotschina,
where it is crossed by the main road to St. Petersburg; and
where, as there is no bridge, the Russian government has instead
cut back the steep banks between which the stream runs to make a
gently sloping approach, and has paved its bed to the same width
as the road, thus creating a passable ford. To the right and left
of the ford, however, troops and vehicles cannot cross, because
of the steepness of the banks. I mention this because three days
later this spot was the scene of a brisk engagement.

The next day, the 30th, my regiment being on duty, I took my
place at the head of the advance-guard and, followed by the whole
army corps, I crossed the ford through the Drissa. The heat was
most oppressive, and in the dust-covered corn fields at the side
of the road one could see two large areas where the grain had
been flattened and crushed, as if a roller had been dragged over
it, indicating the passage of a large column of infantry.
Suddenly, near the coaching inn of Kliastitsoui, these signs
disappeared from the main road, and could be seen to the left on
a wide side-road which led to Jacoubovo. It was evident that the
enemy had turned off the road to Sebej at this point and was
preparing to attack our left flank. This seemed to me to be a
serious matter, so I halted our troops and sent a message to warn
my general. The Marshal, however, who usually kept in view of the
advance-guard, had seen that I had halted. He came along at the
gallop and in spite of the opinions of Generals Castex and
Lorencez, he ordered me to continue up the main road. I had
scarcely gone a league when I saw coming towards me a calische
drawn by two post-horses....I stopped it and I saw a Russian
officer who, overcome by the heat, was lying full-length on its
floor. This young man, the son of the nobleman who owned the
coaching inn of Kliastitsoui which I had just passed, was one of
Wittgenstein's aides-de-camp, and was returning from St.
Petersburg with the reply to some despatches which the general
had sent to the government. You may imagine his surprise when,
startled out of his sleep, he found himself surrounded by our
bearded chasseurs, and saw not far away the numerous columns of
French soldiers. He could not understand why he had not
encountered Wittgenstein's army, or at least some of his scouts,
between Sebej and the spot where we were; but his astonishment
confirmed the opinion held by General Castex and me that
Wittgenstein, to lay a trap for Oudinot, had suddenly quitted the
road to St. Petersburg to attack the left flank and the rear of
the French force. In fact, it was not long before we heard the
sound of artillery and gun-fire.

Marshal Oudinot, although taken by surprise by this unexpected
attack, extricated himself quite well from the tight spot in
which he had landed himself. Ordering his columns to left face,
he presented a line to the attacker, who was repulsed so
vigourously that he did not care to renew the attack that day,
and retired to Jakoubovo. Wittgenstein's cavalry had, however,
enjoyed a considerable success, for they had captured, in the
French rear, some thousand men and some of our equipment; amongst
other things, all our mobile forges. This was a serious loss,
which was felt badly by the cavalry of 2nd Corps throughout the
whole of the campaign. After this engagement, Oudinot's troops
having taken up their position, Castex was ordered to return to
Kliastitsoui, to guard the point at which the road branched,
where we were joined by General Maison's infantry. The Russian
officer held prisoner in the house belonging to his father did us
the honours with good grace.

In expectation of a major battle on the following day, the
commanders of both armies had made their dispositions, and, at
daybreak, the Russians attacked the inn at Kliastitsoui, which
constituted the French right wing. Although in these
circumstances both our regiments would be in action, the regiment
on duty would be in the first rank, and it was the turn of the
24th Chasseurs. To avoid any possibility of hesitation, General
Castex placed himself at the head of the regiment, and falling
rapidly on the Russians, he overran them and took 400 prisoners
without suffering many casualties. He was in the forefront of the
attack, and his horse was killed by a bayonet thrust. In the
resultant fall his foot had been trodden on, and he was unable
for several days to lead the brigade. His place was taken by
Colonel A....

The Russian battalions which the 24th had just defeated were
immediately replaced by others which, emerging from Jacoubovo,
marched rapidly towards us. The Marshal ordered A... to attack
them, and we were told to advance, which we did without delay.
Having arrived at the front line, we arranged ourselves in battle
order and advanced toward the Russians, who awaited us
resolutely. As soon as we were within range, I ordered the
charge...! It was carried out with the greatest vigour, for my
troopers, as well as displaying their usual courage, were aware
that their comrades of the 24th were watching their every move.
The Russians made what I consider to be the fatal mistake of
discharging all their weapons at once by firing a volley, which,
badly aimed, killed only a few men and horses: continuous fire
would have been much more devastating. They then needed to
reload, but we did not give them time; our excellent horses,
galloping at full speed, hit them with such force that many of
them were knocked to the ground. A good number got to their feet
and attempted to defend themselves with their bayonets against
the sabres of our Chasseurs, but after suffering a great many
casualties they fell back, then broke ranks, and a good number
were killed or captured as they fled towards a cavalry regiment
which had come to their aid. This was the Grodno Hussars.

I have noticed that when a unit has defeated another, it always
maintains its superiority. I saw here a further proof of this,
for the Chasseurs of the 23rd hurled themselves on the Grodno
Hussars, as if they were easy prey, having previously beaten them
soundly in a night battle at Drouia, and the Hussars, having
recognised their enemy, took to their heels. This regiment,
during the rest of the campaign, invariably faced the 23rd, who
always retained their ascendancy. While these events were taking
place on our right wing, the infantry on the left and in the
centre had attacked the Russians who, defeated everywhere, had
abandoned the field of battle and at nightfall they went to take
up a position about a league away. Our army took possession of
the area which it occupied, between Jakoubovo and the road
junction at Kliastitsoui. There was much celebration that night
in the brigade bivouacs, on account of our victory. My regiment
had captured the flag of the Tamboff infantry, and the 24th had
also taken that of the Russian unit which they had overcome; but
their satisfaction was diminished by the knowledge that two of
their squadron commanders had been wounded, both of whom,
however, made a rapid recovery and served throughout the rest of
the campaign.

When a unit endeavours to outflank an enemy, it risks being
itself outflanked. This is what happened to Wittgenstein, for on
the night of the 29th, having left the St. Petersburg road to
attack the left and rear of the French army, he had compromised
his line of communication, which Oudinot could have cut
completely if he taken full advantage of the victory achieved on
the 30th. The Russian situation was made worse by the fact that
while facing a victorious army which barred its line of retreat,
it learned that Marshal Macdonald, having crossed the Dvina and
taken the fort of Dvinaberg, was advancing on the Russian rear.
To get out of this difficulty, Wittgenstein had, during the night
after the battle, made a cross-country detour which took his army
back on to the St. Petersburg road at a point beyond the inn at
Kliastitsoui. Since, however, he was afraid that the French
troops who were in that area might fall on his force during this
flank move, he decided to prevent them from doing so by himself
attacking them with superior strength, while the bulk of his army
regained the route to St. Petersburg and reopened his
communications with Sebej.

The next day, the 31st of July, my regiment came on duty at dawn,
when it could be seen that part of the army which we had defeated
the day before had avoided our right wing and was in full flight
towards Sebej, while the remainder were about to attack us at
Kliastitsoui. All of Marshal Oudinot's troops were immediately
stood to, but while the generals were arranging them in battle
order, a strong column of Russian Grenadiers attacked our allies,
the Portuguese, and reduced them to complete disorder; they then
turned on the large and solid coaching inn, an important point
which they were about to take, when Marshal Oudinot, always in
the forefront of any action, hurried to my regiment, which was
already at the outposts, and ordered me to try to stop or at
least slow down the enemy advance until the arrival of our
infantry which was approaching rapidly. I took my regiment off at
the gallop, and ordering the trumpeter to sound the charge, I
struck the right of the enemy line obliquely, which greatly
hindered the ability of their infantry and Grenadiers to fire on
us, and they were about to be cut down, for they were already in
disorder, when either spontaneously or under the orders of their
officers, they made an about turn and ran for a large ditch which
they had left behind them. They all scrambled into it and from
its cover they directed a continuous fire at us. Immediately I
had six or seven men killed and some twenty wounded, and was hit
by a stray ball in the left shoulder. My troopers had their blood
up, but they could not attack men whom it was physically
impossible to reach. At this moment General Maison arrived with
his infantry and having ordered me to withdraw behind his
columns, he attacked the ditch from both ends and all its
defenders were either killed or made prisoner.

As for me, with a painful wound, I was taken back to the inn and
removed, with difficulty, from my horse. The good Dr. Parot, the
regimental surgeon, came to dress my injury, but he had scarcely
started this when he was forced to break off. There was a new
Russian assault and a hail of ball fell about us, so that we had
to remove ourselves out of range of the fire. The doctor found
that my injury was serious and could have been fatal if the thick
braiding of my epaulet, through which the ball had passed, had
not deflected it and lessened its force. The blow had been
sufficiently heavy to knock me back almost onto my horse's
crupper, so that the officers and troopers who were following me
thought I had been killed, and I would have fallen if my
orderlies had not supported me. The dressing was very painful,
for the ball was embedded in the bone at the point where the
upper arm joins the collar-bone. To get it out the wound had to
be enlarged and you can still see the big scar.

I can promise you that if I had been already a colonel, I would
have joined the many wounded who were being sent back to Polotsk,
and after crossing the Dvina I would have sought some Lithuanian
town where I might be cared for; but I was only a squadron
commander and at any time the Emperor could arrive at Witepsk and
hold a revue, at which he would award nothing except to those who
were present, bearing arms. This custom which at first may seem
cruel, was based nevertheless on the interest of the service, for
it encouraged the wounded not to remain in hospital any longer
than was necessary, and to rejoin their units as soon as they
were fit enough to do so. In view of the above, my success in
action against the enemy, my recent wound received in combat, and
my devotion to the regiment, all compelled me not to go away; so
I stayed in spite of the severe pain which I was suffering, and
having put my arm in a sling as well as I could, and had myself
hoisted onto horseback, I rejoined my regiment.

Chap. 9.

Since I had been wounded, things had changed considerably; our
troops had defeated those of Wittgenstein and taken a great
number of prisoners, but the Russians had reached the St.
Petersburg road and were continuing their retreat to Sebej.

To get to this town from the inn at Kliastitsoui, one must cross
the enormous marsh of Khodanui, in the middle of which the main
road is raised on an embankment made of huge pine trees laid one
next to another. On each side of this causeway is a ditch, or
rather a wide and deep canal, and there is no other route except
by making an exceedingly long detour. The embankment is almost a
league long, but of considerable width, so that, it being
impossible to put flank guards in the marsh, the Russians marched
in dense columns along this artificial road, beyond which our
maps showed open country. Marshal Oudinot, aiming at further
victory, had decided to follow them, and for this reason he had
already despatched on the road to the marsh General Verdier's
infantry, which was to be followed first by Castex's brigade of
cavalry, then the whole army corps. My regiment had not yet
joined the line when I returned to it.

When, in spite of my injury, I took up my place at their head, I
received a general acclamation from both officers and men, which
showed the affection and esteem in which these brave people held
me; I was deeply touched by this, and even more so by the welcome
I received from Major Fontaine. This officer, although both
courageous and competent, was so unambitious that he had remained
a captain for eighteen years, having refused promotion three
times, which he had finally accepted only on a direct order from
the Emperor.

So I once more took command of the 23rd, and began to cross the
marsh behind General Verdier's division, at which the rear unit
of the enemy column fired only a few long range shots while they
were still on the causeway. When, however, our infantry reached
the open country, they saw the Russian army deployed in battle
formation, and were treated to a devastating barrage of artillery
fire. Nevertheless, in spite of their losses the French
battalions continued to advance. Soon they were all off the
embankment and it was the turn of my regiment, at the head of the
brigade, to reach the open ground. Colonel A..., who was the
temporary brigade commander, was not there to give me orders so I
thought it right to remove my regiment from this dangerous spot
and I led them off at the gallop as soon as the infantry gave me
room; however I had seven or eight men killed and a greater
number wounded. The 24th, who followed me, also suffered many
casualties. The same happened to General Legrand's infantry
division; but as soon as they were formed up on the plain,
Marshal Oudinot attacked the enemy lines, and they directed their
artillery fire at several different points so that the exit from
the marsh would have become less perilous for the remainder of
the army, if Wittgenstein had not at that moment attacked with
all his force the units which we had in the open. His superiority
in numbers compelled us to give ground and we were driven back
towards the causeway of the Khodanui. Fortunately the track was
very wide, which allowed us to proceed by platoons. As soon as we
left the plain, the cavalry became more of a hindrance than a
help. The marshal put us in front of the retreat; we were
followed by Verdier's division, whose general had been very
seriously wounded, and General Legrand's division made the
rear-guard. The last brigade of this division, commanded by
General Albert, had to fight a very sharp action while its last
battalions were getting onto the causeway, but once they were
formed into columns General Albert put eight artillery pieces at
the tail end which kept up a continuous fire during the retreat,
so it was the turn of the enemy to suffer heavy casualties. By
contrast, the Russian artillery rarely discharged a shot because
the guns had to be turned round to fire at us and then turned
back to continue the pursuit, a lengthy and difficult operation
on the causeway, so that they did us little damage.

The day was ending when the French troops, having crossed the
marsh, repassed Kliastitsoui and found themselves once more on
the banks of the Drissa, at the ford of Sivotschina which they
had crossed in the morning to follow the Russians who had been
defeated at Kliastitsoui. The Russians had their revenge for
having caused us seven or eight hundred casualties on the plain
beyond the marsh; they now had a sword at our backs. To put an
end to the fighting and allow the army some rest, Marshal Oudinot
led it across the ford to set up camp at Bieloe.

Night was falling when the outposts which had been left to watch
the Drissa, reported that the enemy were crossing the river. The
Marshal went there at once, and could see that eight Russian
battalions with a battery of fourteen guns were setting up their
bivouac on our side of the river, while the remainder of the army
stayed on the other side, preparing no doubt to cross over and
attack us on the morrow. This advance party was commanded by
General Koulnieff, an enterprising officer but one who, like most
of the Russian officers of the period, drank to excess. It would
seem that on this evening he had drunk more than usual, for it is
otherwise difficult to explain why he made the grave error of
coming, with no more than eight battalions to set up camp a short
distance from an army of forty thousand men, and that in a most
unfavourable position; for he had, some two hundred paces behind
him, the Drissa, which could not be crossed except by the ford;
not because of the depth of the water but because it ran between
very steep banks fifteen to twenty feet high. Koulnieff had
therefore no other line of retreat but the ford. Could it be that
he hoped that his eight battalions and fourteen canons would be
able, if defeated, to withdraw smartly across this one passage,
in the face of an attack which might be launched at any moment by
the French army from nearby Bieloe? The answer must be no, but
general Koulnieff was in no state to consider the matter when he
put his camp on the left bank of the river. It is perhaps
surprising that Wittgenstein should have entrusted the command of
his advance guard to Koulnieff, of whose intemperate habits he
must have been aware.

While the head of the Russian column approached, rashly, to
within such a short distance of us, a great confusion reigned,
not among the troops, but among their leaders. Marshal Oudinot,
although the bravest of men, lacked consistency, and passed
rapidly from a plan of attack to one of a withdrawal. The losses
which he had suffered towards the end of the day on the other
side of the great marsh had thrown him into a state of
perplexity, and he could not think how he was to carry out the
Emperor's orders, which were to push Wittgenstein back at least
as far as Sebej and Newel. He was therefore delighted to receive,
during the night, a despatch informing him of the imminent
arrival of a Bavarian corps, commanded by General Saint-Cyr,
which the Emperor was placing under his orders; but instead of
awaiting this powerful reinforcement in his present sound
position, Oudinot, advised by the general of artillery, Dulauloy,
wished to make contact with the Bavarians by withdrawing his army
as far as Polotsk. This inexplicable notion was warmly opposed by
the group of generals summoned by the Marshal. General Legrand
said that although our success of the morning had been
counter-balanced by the losses of the evening, the army was still
in good heart and ready to advance, and that to retreat to
Polotsk would damage their morale and present them to the
Bavarians as a defeated force coming to seek refuge amongst them;
an idea which would arouse indignation in all French bosoms. This
vigourous speech by Legrand was acclaimed by all the generals and
the Marshal then gave up the project of a retreat.

There remained the question of what to do the next day. General
Legrand, with the authority of his seniority, long service and
experience in warfare, proposed that they should take advantage
of the serious error made by Koulnieff by attacking the
advance-guard so imprudently placed without support on the bank
which we occupied, and drive them back into the Drissa which they
had behind them. This advice having been accepted by the Marshal
and all the group, the execution of it was confided to General

Oudinot's army was encamped in a forest of huge, widely spaced
pines, beyond which there was a very extensive clearing. The
boundaries of the wood took the form of a bow, the two ends of
which reached the Drissa, which formed as it were the bow-string.
The Russians had set up their bivouac very close to the river,
opposite the ford. Their frontage was protected by fourteen
artillery pieces.

General Legrand wanted to take the enemy by surprise, so he
ordered General Albert to send a regiment of infantry to each of
the ends of the wood from where they could attack the camp from
the flank as soon as they heard the approach of the cavalry, who,
emerging from the woods in the centre of the bow would go
bald-headed for the Russian battalions and drive them into the
ravine. The task given to the cavalry was plainly the most
dangerous, for not only had they to make a frontal attack on an
enemy armed with 6000 muskets but would also be exposed to the
fire of fourteen artillery pieces before they could reach their
objective. It was, however, hoped that by a surprise attack, the
Russians might be caught asleep, and put up little resistance.

You have seen that my regiment having come on duty on the morning
of the 31st July at Kliastitsoui, had continued to serve for the
whole of that day, and should, according to the regulations, have
been relieved by the 24th at 1 A.M. on the 1st August, and it was
this regiment whose duty it was to carry out the attack, while
mine remained in reserve; there being only enough space in the
clearing between the woods and the stream for one regiment of
cavalry. However, Colonel A... went to Oudinot and suggested to
him that there was a danger that while we were preparing to
attack the troops in front of us, General Wittgenstein might send
a strong column to our right which could cross the Drissa at
another ford which probably existed some three leagues upstream
from where we were, and gaining our rear could capture our
wounded and our equipment; and that it would be a good idea to
send a regiment of cavalry to keep an eye on this ford. The
Marshal fell in with this suggestion and Colonel A..., whose
regiment had just come on duty, quickly ordered his men into the
saddle and led them off on this expedition which he had thought
up, leaving to the 23rd the dangers of the battle which was about
to take place.

My regiment received with calm the news of the perilous mission
which had been thrust upon them and welcomed the appearance of
the Marshal and General Legrand when they came to supervise the
preparations for this important attack which we were about to
carry out.

At this time all the French regiments, with the exception of the
Cuirassiers, had a company of Grenadiers, known as the elite
company, whose customary position was on the right of the line, a
position which they held in the 23rd. General Legrand observed to
the Marshal that, as the enemy had placed their artillery in
front of their centre, it was there that most danger would lie,
and in order to avoid any hesitation which might compromise the
whole operation, it would be advisable to attack this point with
the elite company, which was composed of the most seasoned
soldiers mounted on the best horses. It was in vain that I
assured the Marshal that the regiment was in all respects as
solid in one part as in another, he ordered me to put the elite
company in the centre, which I then did. I next gathered the
officers together and explained to them in low tones what we were
to do, and warned them that, the better to surprise the enemy, I
would give no preparatory commands and would simply order the
charge when we were within close range of the enemy guns. Once
everything had been arranged, the regiment left its bivouac, in
complete silence, at the first faint light of dawn, and made its
way without difficulty through the wood, the great trees of which
were widely spaced, and arrived at the level clearing in which
was the Russian encampment. I alone in the regiment had no sabre
in my hand, for having only one hand which I could use, I needed
that to hold the reins of my horse. You will understand that this
was a very unpleasant situation for a cavalry officer about to
engage the enemy.

However, I had chosen to go with my regiment and so I placed
myself in front of the elite company, having beside me their
gallant captain, M. Courteau, one of the finest of officers and
one whom I valued most highly.

All was quiet in the Russian camp, towards which we advanced
slowly and in silence, and my hopes of achieving a total surprise
were increased by the fact that General Koulnieff not having
brought any cavalry across the ford, we saw no mounted outposts,
and could distinguish, by the feeble light of their fires, only a
few infantry sentries, posted so close to the camp that between
their warning and our sudden arrival the Russians would have
little chance to prepare themselves for defence. Suddenly,
however, two prowling and suspicious Cossack peasants appeared on
horseback, some thirty paces from our line, and after regarding
it for a moment they fled towards the camp, where it was obvious
that they intended to give warning of our presence. This
mischance was very unfortunate, because had it not been for that,
we would certainly have reached the Russians without losing a
man; however since we were now discovered and were in any case
nearing the spot where I had decided to increase the speed of our
advance, I urged my horse into a gallop; the regiment did the
same, and shortly I gave the order to sound the charge.

At this signal my gallant troopers and I launched ourselves at
the enemy, upon whom we fell like a thunderbolt. The two Cossacks
had, however, raised the alarm. The gunners, sleeping beside
their guns, grabbed their slow matches, and fourteen canons
belched grapeshot at the regiment. Thirty-seven men, of whom
nineteen belonged to the elite company, were killed outright. The
brave Captain Courteau was amongst them, as was Lieutenant
Lallouette. The Russian gunners were attempting to reload their
guns when they were cut down by our men. We had few wounded,
almost all the injuries having been fatal. We had some forty
horses killed, mine was maimed by a heavy bullet but was able to
carry me to the Russian camp where the soldiers, rudely awakened
from their sleep, were rushing to take up their arms, but were
being sabred by our troopers, whom I had ordered to get between
them and the rows of muskets, so that few were able to reach one
and fire at us. Then, alerted by the sound of gunfire, General
Albert's two regiments of infantry ran from the wood to attack
the two sides of the camp, bayoneting all who resisted. The
Russians, in disorder, were unable to withstand this triple
attack. Many of them, who having arrived at night had not been
able to see the height of the river banks, tried to escape by
this route and falling fifteen or twenty feet onto the rocks were
injured and in many cases killed.

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

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

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

Chap. 10.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chap. 11.

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

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

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

General Saint-Cyr, who had expected to be attacked in the early
morning, attributed the tranquillity which reigned in the Russian
camp to the tremendous losses they had suffered the previous day.

This may have been part of the reason, but the main cause of
Wittgenstein's inactivity was that he expected the arrival,
during the coming night, of a strong division of infantry and
several squadrons of cavalry from St. Petersburg, and he had
delayed his attack until he had received this powerful
reinforcement so that he might the more easily defeat us on the
day following.

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

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

The day seemed very long. Everyone, even the General, in spite of
his sang-froid, constantly looked at his watch. Having observed
that, on the previous day, the absence of the French cavalry had
allowed the Russians to drive our left wing almost into the
Dvina, General Saint-Cyr, shortly before the attack, moved all
his squadrons, in silence, into a position behind some big shops,
on the other side of which lay the meadowland. It was on this
level ground that the cavalry could manoeuvre to fall on the
enemy right and give cover to the left wing of our infantry, of
which the first two divisions were to attack the Russian camp
while the third supported the cavalry and the remaining two
formed the reserve and protected the town. All was ready when, at
last, it was six o'clock, and the signal for the attack was given

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