Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

THIRTEENTH BOOK.

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YEAR 1813.

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CHAPTER IV.

THE GUARD DURING THE CAMPAIGN OF SAXONY, IN 1813.

I.

The disasters of the retirement from Russia, far from beating down France, on the contrary retempered its national spirit: enthusiasm grew with the heightening of danger, as at the first days of our revolution. The Emperor could profit from this patriotic movement; and, soon, all the forces who the nation could make available were directed towards the most pressing goal: The independence of the country!

The first task of Napoleon was naturally to send many reinforcements to the brave army, which, by its firm hold on the banks of the Niemen, the Vistula and the Oder, still contained the Russian armies ready to burst upon it.  Unfortunately the new campaign, which it was going to undertake, was to be a campaign of defection on behalf of our allies: it was the Prussians who gave the example by betraying us first.

The General Yorck, with his corps, left Marshal Macdonald and crossed to the enemy.  The unexpected treason, which, delivered the crossing to the Russians, obliged the Viceroy Eugene, who became General in Chief of the army after the departure of the King of Naples, to withdraw himself successively behind the Vistula, the Oder and the Elbe.

Yorck was initially repudiated by the cabinet of Berlin, which, in its turn, after having given up our alliance was put under the influence of Russia.  During this time, the royal Prince of Sweden, Bernadotte, made his pact with the British Ministry, and, bribed by English guineas, prepared to come to fight his former comrades in arms.

The Austrians, were still retained by the careful policy of their cabinet and the Saxons, by the honesty of their sovereign, were to reflect before declaring themselves completely against us. While waiting, the foreign coalition, to better excite the hatred of the people against France, resounded with words of freedom and fatherland, great words which were to be forgotten shortly after the victory.  In Prussia, young people from all the classes, the rich, the poor, noble or commoners; the students of the universities, led by their professors become their officers, regimenting themselves.  In the countries of the Confederation of the Rhine, the sovereigns, more impatient perhaps than their people to break their alliance with Napoleon, disguised their feelings more. “The lion had not died,” as one had proclaimed: there was risk in raising the hand against him.  Indeed, in the moment when Germany believed the Emperor wrapped in the ices of Russia, hadn't he been found in the middle of his palace of the Tuileries, receiving the homage and the protests of devotion of all the bodies made up of the Empire?  And hadn't this France, which one belabored as if exhausted, not just rebuilt itself more enthusiastic and more formidable than ever by sending three hundred and thousand from her children to replace, in the North, those which the war had harvested?  The King of Saxony formally refused to break the alliance, which linked it to France; the Austrian cabinet, without entirely breaking it, ceased meeting the conditions of them, and offered only its mediation for the conclusion of peace.  Napoleon accepted it; but as these negotiations were not to stop the hostilities, he started from Saint-Cloud, on March 16, 1813, to put himself at the head of his new and young army.

II.

It was time that the Emperor arrived.  The skill and the bravery of the Viceroy, the constancy of his heroic battalions, reduced to so small a number of men, could not be enough any more to contain the always increasing forces of the enemy.  The line of the Niemen had been abandoned in consequence of the treason of General Yorck: there was no stop behind the Vistula; but the lines of Oder and Wartha had given time to Prince Eugene to reorganize the army without giving up the defense of fortified towns of the north of Germany.

 

The Death of Marshal Bessières

 

The allied army then introduced a formidable number of combatants, who had, three months later, risen to nine hundred thousand men.  The old Blücher commanded the Prussians, and Wittgenstein had taken over as commander in chief of the Russians after the death of Kutusov, that fatigue from the campaign of Russia had killed.

Napoleon did not know the troops, which were to fight under his command.  Conscripts for the most part, these young soldiers were going to see fire for the first time: they greeted the great captain with noisy acclamations for whom they were resolved to be shown worthy.  It was on the banks of the Saale, within a little distance from the famous battlefield of Jena, that the new army made its junction with the old one.  The cavalry, even that of the Guard, had not arrived yet on line; the infantry alone of the Old Guard had been able to go on without resting. Nevertheless, even though the Russians had very many cavalry, Napoleon took the offensive then and ordered an advance on Leipzig: Weissenfels and Poserna were to guide the first successes of our young soldiers.

On May 1 in the morning a strong enemy rear-guard announced its presence on the heights of Poserna.  Napoleon examined it and followed it with his telescope.  Poserna is a defile, which the General Winzingerode wanted to defend with cannon and infantry:

—Remove this position, said the Emperor to the Souham division; it is the end of the day.

 With these words the young infantry, which this intrepid general commanded advanced with ardor and form like a brilliant chessboard of sparkling bayonets.  The enemy artillery made an alarming fire.  The cannon balls plowed through the ranks, breaking the columns; the combat was keen.  Marshal Bessières, without cavalry, was a corps deprived of its soul.  He sought this cavalry of the Old Guard, which he always commanded on the battlefields; but not seeing it, he traversed the field like the true tactician that he was.  At this time an enemy ball rebounded in the plain, ricocheted and came to strike the Marshal in the middle of the body, who fell crushed.  He was still an old man of the Army of Italy, where the cavalry of the Guard was accustomed to seen coiffed and powdered as in the time of the Republic.  The body of Bessières was covered with a coat to hide this loss from the army, and it was carried off.  What a fate! What a presage!  For sixteen years Bessières had not left Napoleon.  It seemed that more intimate comrades in arms must, in this disastrous but glorious campaign, leave to prepare, beyond the tomb, a broader sepulcher for the heart of their Emperor!

Here, moreover, was how Napoleon expressed himself with regard to Bessières in the letter addressed by him, on May 2, 1813, nine o’clock in the evening, to Marie-Louise.*

*In this campaign and in that of 1814, Napoleon, as if he had foreseen that fortune was going to give up his eagles, ceased sending to the capital those sublime bulletins, faithful testimonies of his successes on the battlefields, just as they were sober proclamations to his soldiers.  The news of the army was addressed: “to H. M. the Empress-Queen and Regent,” and published, by extracts, in the Moniteur, under this formula; but the drafting did not belong any more to Napoleon.  It is curious to compare the painting of our reverses traced with the same hand as that which had improvised the brilliant bulletins of Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland, Wagram and Moskowa.

“This marshal, he said, that one can rightly name brave and right, was recommendable as much by his military vision and his great experience with the arm of the cavalry, as by his civil and private qualities.  His death, on the field of honor, is the worthiest desire.  It was so fast that it had to be without pain.  It is little losses, which can be most acute to the heart of the Emperor.  The army and all France will share the pain that Its Majesty felt.”

However our troops having crushed the enemy, bivouacked on the road of Lützen to Leipzig.  In this plain already famous for the death of a hero, Gustavus Adolphus, and on the order of Napoleon, sentinels were placed to keep the axe of the sappers from the willows that shaded this old monument of glorious memories.

The following day May 2, the army continued its march.  The road was covered with a long file of crews, caissons and pieces of artillery; that was in a hurry to arrive at Leipzig.  Napoleon, supposing that the enemy would await him in the plains which are behind, thought that he would fight a great battle to it.  Already shooting had begun on the accesses to the city, which were seen with inhabitants covering the roofs, as peaceful spectators of the combat; but on this side however no price was offered for the sight.  Impatient to know if the resistance was serious, Napoleon directed his field glasses towards the point where our advance guard had begun; when suddenly a terrible a cannonade was heard on the right and almost behind the army.  Napoleon made a movement and recoiled… From the swirls of rising smoke, in the midst of the plain, in the direction of the villages of Rahna, Kaya, Gross-Görschen and Klein-Görschen, where the corps of Marshal Ney had to spend the night; he discovered on the horizon several deep black columns… It was the enemy army which had bivouacked the previous night within three miles of the French Army, and which emerged in total at Pegau to take it in the flank.  Napoleon, attacked unexpectedly, thus decided to fight a battle at once.

—We have no cavalry, he said; but it isn’t important: it will be a battle of Egypt; everywhere the French infantry must know to be enough.  I do not fear my being abandoned with the valor of our young conscripts.

His orders were given at once.  The Duke of Tarente must cease the attack of Leipzig and return to form our left, which the Viceroy Eugène will command.  The Duke of Ragusa, which was with the rear-guard, would form the right and would be supported by General Bertrand.  The stopped troops, which were in columns on the road, tightened the ranks, made a half-turn on the right and deployed at once in their line in the plain.  This beautiful operation was carried out with a precision that would have honored the veterans.

The troops of Marshal Ney were composed of only conscripts: they withstood the first effort of the Russians with the balance and the firmness of our old soldiers.  Nevertheless, the enemy seized the village that this army corps occupied and advanced on Lützen, that it wanted to capture at all costs.  The presence of Napoleon and his Guard could only stop this dash and change fortune.  The Emperor thus arrived with the Guard at Kaya, the center of the attack, at the moment when our brave young men, not wanting to flee in front of the Russians and the Prussians which have arrived in turn, sought to rally, while forming into half companies, with the cries of vive l’Empereur!  His arrival produced on them the accustomed effect: the ranks were reformed, enthusiasm returned and the combat started again with fury.

Soon and while the Guard opposed the allies’ front immovably, the corps of Marmont, arrived on the battlefield, extended the right which the enemy sought to gain, and emerged towards Starsiedel, without worrying about the many Russian and Prussian cavalry who advanced proudly to charge it.  The Compans and Bonnet divisions, formed in squares, pushed back this cavalry several times; it returned; but its brave divisions, made of regiments of seamen, presented an impenetrable block to them: only one of their battalions was broken into.

However Blücher advanced the corps of Yorck and the Russian division of Berg to again take the villages of Rahna and Klein-Görschen, which Marshal Ney had just torn from them.  This Marshal, obliged to yield, withdrew himself behind Kaya, which he vigorously defended.  In vain the enemy attacked this village impetuously, two times it was expelled: a last effort of the Berg division ensured the temporary possession of it by the Union (coalisés).  Our young soldiers withstood, without weakening, this obstinate fight; but, more brave than experienced, they suffered enormous losses.  It was Napoleon, moreover, finding himself in the midst of fire, that ordered the Count of Lobau, his aide-de-camp, to put himself at the head of the Ricard division, and to assist the effort which the Prince of Moskowa was making to try to retake Kaya. 

The movement was carried out with the speed of a flash.  The Count of Lobau, greatly supported by the divisions Brennier, Girard and Souham, penetrated into the village.  A terrible combat engaged between Kaya and Klein-Görschen, from where the enemy emerged with all his joined forces together.  Girard and Brennier succumbed as heroes at the head of their young phalanges, which they persisted, though seriously wounded, to lead to the combat.  Girard while dying shouted to his:

—Soldiers! It is the day of France! It is necessary here to avenge the affront for Moscow or to die!

The enemy feeling that victory was going to escape it if it did not support Blucher more effectively, Wittgenstein ordered the Prince of Württemberg to report to the left of the line.  One of his divisions attacked the Marchand division, and pushed back it beyond the Flosgraben; the other reinforced Berg, in Klein-Gorshen.  This village was taken again, and Ney, for the third time, was brought back behind Kaya.  Next arrived the grenadiers and the Russian Guard that Alexander and Frederick-William, witnessing the combat, waited impatiently to decide the battle against us.  The moment was decisive, the French Imperial Guard accepted the command to take the offensive; Lutzen had been hitherto, except the combat of naval regiments, a battle of young men.  Sixteen battalions of the Young Guard, under the command of Marshal Mortier, had the honor to go first, and the crushed enemy was thrown out beaten as far as Klein-Gorschen.  There the Russian grenadiers, who had arrived on the line, started to take part in the action while emerging by Eisdorf and Gross-Görschen.  This movement could still have decided the day if the French army had only consisted of what fought up to this point; but on his side, the Viceroy Eugene had left the columns of Lauriston engaged in the suburbs of Leipzig, and ran to Kitzen with the corps of Macdonald; the entry on the line of these three fresh divisions decided the victory.  Vainly the Muscovite grenadiers and the corps of the Prince of Württemberg sought to dispute the crossing at Eisdorf; attacked on all parts, they were constrained to give up it.  The allies, in their turn, outflanked on the right, while Ney and Marmont pressed them on the front and Bertrand emerged on their left and turned them with the Morand division, saw the danger of their position, and were enveloped behind Gros-Gorschen, where only the arrival of the Russian guards enabled them to cross the Elster.

The battle of Lützen left few prisoners in our hands, but the enemy took considerable losses there.  Several of its Generals were wounded (Blücher, Konovnizin, von Hünerbein, etc); others, the numbers of which included the Princes of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and of Hesse-Homburg, were killed.  This victory, at the beginning of a campaign, had indeed an extraordinary effect on morale: it stopped, for a time, the defection of the allies, and exalted the courage of the soldiers of the Young Guard who consequently gained the firmness and the balance of the old troops of their arm.

During the battle, Leipzig was taken by the troops of General Lauriston, and six days after Dresden fell in our possession.

While arriving, the united army had cut the bridge, which separated Dresden from Villeneuve, or the suburb of Neustadt, which their rear-guard continued to occupy; it took several days to reestablish and to cross, in spite of the fire of their batteries.  During this time, Napoleon was pleased to reinstall in his palace the worthy King of Saxony, who had been faithful to his word.

III.

The allies had stopped within twelve miles of Dresden.  At Lützen they had sought a battle.  They decided this time to wait until we came to find them; they chose the ground where it was advantageous for them to fight, certain that our soldiers would not hesitate to attack them there, and they laid out all their resources in order to be strengthened there to receive us vigorously.

The crossing of the Elbe and the various dispositions that Napoleon believed it his duty to take before going ahead, lasted ten days.  The enemy generals benefited from this rest period to erect their camp with redoubts and entrenchments that they furnished with much artillery.  The center of their position sat on the famous mound of Klein-Bautzen and Kreckwitz, within one mile in front of Wurschen and one mile behind of Bautzen, a formidable position, where already, during the Seven Year War, Frederick, who took refuge after his defeat at Hochkirch, had faced the victorious army of Daun.  Only the Austrian general had arrived on the side of Prague, and the French army advanced by the road of Dresden.  The left of the position of the united armies was pressed on the mountains of Bohemia and gave little opportunity to attack; the right, covered by the Lakes Malschwitz, was a difficult access.  Finally the Spree, which bathes the walls of Bautzen, defended the position and offered a first obstacle to be crossed.

The crossing of this river, which took place on three bridges, and the care to push back the enemy from position to position, filled the first day.  The effort of our army appeared to be dedicating itself on the left of the fortified camp, which was defended by the Russians.  Our young soldiers that the victory of Lützen made it impossible to call conscripts any more, showed an impetuous value there.  Everywhere the enemy dared to await them, was approached frankly and crushed with bayonet.  Napoleon directed all the movements, and success crowned his hopes.  In this first affaire, which is called the combat of Bautzen, Marmont crossed the Spree to the left of the army, on a trestle bridge (pont de chevalets), which he threw over in the presence of the Prussians and in spite of their fire.  Macdonald, in the center, forced the stone bridge which leads to Bautzen, and Oudinot, on right bank, still threw a bridge in front of the Russians and drove the corps of Gortschakov out in front of him.

Napoleon established his headquarters at Bautzen only at nine o'clock in the evening.  He was merry and confident.

—Sirs, he said to his generals, each day has enough sorrow.  We rest this evening and we will start again tomorrow.

Then sitting down to take the modest meal, which had been prepared for him, he joked with one of his old servants, who had come in the middle of the firing in the morning to bring a little bread and wine to him.

—That place, he said to him, was not agreeable, was it? and you will remember this lunch.
—Yes, sire, murmured this one between his teeth, and especially as the shells which burst around Your Majesty.

On May 21, at five o’clock in the morning, the battle started again all along the line.  Napoleon renewed the demonstrations of the day before against the left of the enemy.  Oudinot advanced on Miloradovitch, who had received reinforcements, and pushed him back.  Macdonald positioned himself to be able to support Oudinot.  The center of the army was spread to impose some on Blücher, but did not engage him.  Both sides fought without advancing; Napoleon himself did not press the action; he seemed satisfied to occupy the enemy, and, tired with the night’s work, which he had passed giving orders, he lied down on the slope of a ravine and fell asleep in the middle of the batteries of Marshal Marmont.  This sleep that his officers contemplated with respect, had lasted for a few minutes when the cannon, resounding beyond the Prussian lines, announced an unforeseen attack.  Napoleon was awaken, looked at his watch, studied for one moment the direction of firing, and exclaimed:

—Victory is with us!

At once the order was given to move ahead, and all the corps at the same time shook, merry to support the powerful diversion, which took place.

The cannon which one heard was that of Marshal Ney who, according to the instructions which Napoleon had given him the day before, had, by a long turn, outflanked the right of the enemy and came to attack in the rear of its own lines, attacks daring and skillfully combined, which made useless their formidable entrenchments.  The enemy, until the last moment, had not suspected the importance of this diversion.  Barclay de Tolly, charged to cover the line of the allied army, knew that the corps of General Lauriston operated in front of him; but he believed he had only to deal with this general, while he was followed by the corps of Marshal Ney and General Reynier.  Barclay, the first victim of his error, was successively beaten in three positions where he had succeeded in rallying his troops.  The sudden attack of Ney threw alarm in the camp of the allies; the center was dismantled to reinforce the right.  The enemy reserves, the Russian guards hastened to run ahead of the marshal to oppose his progress.  It was the decisive moment: Napoleon seized it and ordered a general attack.

The attack was thus made.  The cutting off of the center and the right flank was made, and Blücher saw that the only recourse that remained for him was a prompt retirement.  At six o'clock in the evening, the defeat of the old Prussian marshal was complete.  His columns were withdrawn on Weissemberg with a precipitation, which resembled a rout.  The tent of Napoleon was placed at the height of the position, in front of an isolated inn, where Emperor Alexander had placed his headquarter throughout the day; the Old French Imperial Guard formed its squares around the imperial tent and its brass bands played its music of victory.

It was on the trophies of the battle and with the repercussion of anthems of glory that Napoleon, always full of the Roman ideas, improvised that same night a splendid decree of recognition to the army and his Guard.  He wanted that on Mount Cenis, at the highest place of the Alps that generations to come could read one day these solemn words: “The Emperor Napoleon, at the battle field of Wurschen*, ordered the erection of this monument as a testimony in his recognition towards his soldiers of France and Italy.  This monument will transmit from age to age the memory of this great time when, in three months, a million men ran to arms to ensure the integrity of the French territory.”

*Decree of 22 May 1813.

However it was not finished yet.  The left of the united army, composed of the Russian corps of Gortschakov and Miloradovitch, which had fought all day against Marshal Oudinot, had forced him to engage in the woods where he had believed, for some time, to continue the victory.  Returning on the battlefield, Marshal Macdonald advanced to cutoff the crossing to him; but, deprived of cavalry, he had to give up this intention. 

In the presence of this keen pursuit, Miloradovitch continued his retirement.  Napoleon on his side deployed his columns: the enemy always held.  The Emperor became irritated by so much perseverance.  He wanted to obtain a more positive result at all costs.  He traversed the full extent of the French line, accompanied by his brilliant escort.  The horse chasseurs of the Old Guard preceded him in the middle of the flood of dust, which the riders raised.  Behind the Emperor were the general officers who usually accompanied him, Caulaincourt, Mortier, Duroc, and in case he needed to look up some plans, General Kirgener was placed beside the grand Marshal: he studied the positions.  Here and there Napoleon stopped, placed his telescope on the shoulder of the service page, or, in his absence, on that of an old Guide of Egypt: he embraced the points furthest away from the ground at a single glance.

At the sight of this group, Miloradovitch recommended to his artillery to draw their attention on this point.  Three balls left: two of these balls tear the air while thundering above the heads of the imperial staff officers; but the third ball struck a large tree, rebounded on General Kirgener, who its kills stiff, then still rebounded and came to reach the grand Marshal, from which it tears his entrails.  Duroc fell like Bessières, but without expiring with the blow.  He was wrapped in a coat, as Marshal Lannes had been four years before, and, using a stretcher worked with haste, he was transported to a close dwelling.

During this time, Napoleon, highly worried, had always gone ahead to reconnoiter the enemy and prepare for a new victory.  However something of sadness appeared on his face; he no longer had the same confidence in his star.  He was heard to say to the grand Marshal that morning:

—Duroc, fortune is inconstant: it is not as it was for us formerly.

—It is true, Sire, answered the Duke of Frioul.

Believing to guess a movement of the enemy, Napoleon had returned to give some orders, and seeing only Mortier and Caulaincourt at a distance:

—And Duroc! Did he make it, where did he go?

At the same moment his aide-de-camp, Charles Lebrun, arrived pale, covered with blood and dust.

—Sire, he said to him, the Grand Marshal has just been struck mortally.

—It is impossible! He was there only a moment ago… answered quietly Napoleon.

—Sire, what I have the honor to say to Your Majesty is unfortunately only too true.

Then Napoleon lowered his head and did not say anything anymore.

He was asked for orders; he did not want to give any.

—Sirs, on tomorrow all, he said finally, and he retraced his steps.

A few hours after, saw him in the middle of the squares of his Guard walking in sharpest agitation around his tent, until the moment when Ivan gave him news of the Grand Marshal.  Napoleon went to visit with the casualty.  By seeing him passing so sad in the midst of them, his old grenadiers could not be prevented from saying:

—Our poor Emperor lost one of his children!

It was the truth.

The diplomacy assisted once again the beaten foreign armies.  A request was made to Napoleon for an armistice, by deluding him with the hope of a close at hand peace.  The cabinet of Vienna did not scorn to contribute to mislead the son-in-law of their emperor.  Napoleon, whose expensive wish was peace and who, according to such successes, had the right to hope that it would be offered to him honorably, granted a suspension of fighting, and returned to Dresden.  A fatal suspension during, which the enemy armies repaired their losses.  During this time England enjoined again its intrigues, and Austria prepared its defection.

IV.

The armistice which had just been concluded, the negotiations which were going to start did not prevent Napoleon, as of his arrival from Dresden, from dealing with the preparations required to be able to act with advantage if the bad faith of the enemy or irreconcilable claims on the honor of the French Empire obliged him to start to fight again; because, of all the sovereigns of Europe, at that time where the words of general independence, European pacification, rest of the people, formed the bottom of all proclamations, Napoleon alone wanted peace and sincerely wished it.

The study of the maps of Bohemia, of Saxony and Silesia, the reconnaissance of the places by visits on the ground, the examination and the choice of the places, which were suitable to strengthen, occupied every moment left to him after the correspondence with his ministers of Paris and the daily reviews of the troops, which arrived from France.  The line of Elbe was put in a state of defense.  Military bridges, thrown over the river, ensured the communications of the army; a fortified camp, established at Pirma, closed the defiles of Bohemia.  Dresden finally, whose enclosure had been supplemented by ditches and palisades, was defended moreover by a line of advanced redoubts, armed with artillery.  This city, in the thought of the Emperor, was to be the center of all the operations to come.

The mediation of Austria had still not done anything for the goal that it had been given the responsibility to reach, that is to say peace.  It had stopped, by the armistice, the victorious march of our army; but its envoy, the Count of Bubna, unceasingly brought new difficulties to the propositions of the French plenipotentiary.  The husband of Marie-Louise complained some to his father-in-law; this one had a natural honesty, which endangered the policy of the Austrian cabinet.  His principal minister, the Count von Metternich, in the hope of better misleading the perspicacity of Napoleon, went himself to Dresden; but nothing was decided nor stopped, and while invaluable time was lost in useless talks, the efforts of the coalition were amazing.  The foreign sovereigns had managed to recruit into the line more than eight hundred thousand combatants, including the troops that Austria, raising the mask finally, going against us.  Prussia alone had two hundred and fifty thousand armed men, including thirty-two thousand cavalry; and in the absence of soldiers, England had provided subsidies and ammunition of all types.  It had sent to Bernadotte and Prussia cannons, siege equipment, and Congreve rockets.

The force of the troops gathered by Napoleon could not rise to more than four hundred thousand men, even by including in this number the garrisons of the fortified towns and the allied quotas.  These quotas, worked on already by the intrigues of England, offered nothing any more but a doubtful contest.  The Poles had remained faithful; they were the only ones, which did not betray us for fortune.  Any French heart, penetrated of our misfortunes and the devotion of these brave men, must preserve for them an eternal admiration.  Finally only twelve hundred pieces of artillery supported the French Army.

Austria had thus declared itself: its army was ready.  The armistice was denounced at once, and Blücher veiled in it even the hour before it had arrived.

Part of the French Army went on to Berlin.  Napoleon was in Silesia, where Macdonald had just replanted our eagles at the edge of the Katzbach.  The Union thought that the moment was favorable to attack.  The Austro-Prusso-Russian army, more than two hundred thousand men strong, emerged from Bohemia.  The Prince of Schwarzenberg, commanding the Austrian quota, had become general in chief, and directed the center.  Barclay de Tolly, with two Russian and Prussian corps, formed the right wing.  Klenau, with the Prussians, was with the left wing.  Gouvion-Saint-Cyr had only twenty-five thousand French to hold the capital of Saxony.  He recalled his posts and withdrew himself behind his cut off lines.  The Union encircled Dresden by the left bank of the Elbe.  In their confidence, they had scorned the camp of Pirma.  The news that Napoleon received from Dresden made him decide to press his return there, and he went back on the way with the Old Guard, as it was not at first needed to contain Blucher.

However the enemy had pressed our outposts more and more; already it had occupied the avenues of the city and the hills surrounding; batteries raised at all points.  Provisions were made to remove the corps of the city.  Napoleon had thought one moment to let Dresden defend itself with his own forces, and to try a diversion at Pirma on the rear of the united army, and this vigorous enterprise had brought large results: fears which the inhabitants of Dresden expressed obliged Napoleon to give up it.

The attack began on August 26.  The allies, thinking that it dealt only with the corps of Gouvion-Saint-Cyr, advanced with resolution.  The confidence of the Germans on our side was shaken. Two regiments of Westphalian hussars passed to the enemy.  Their attack was keen and obstinate; each one of their columns came preceded by fifty pieces of artillery: many prudently established batteries crossed their fire on the city.  In vain the artillery of our advanced redoubt plowed with doubled charges these frightening columns, nothing, in the first moment, could stop the impetuosity of the attackers: they arrived at the palisades, and soon all the reserves of Gouvion-Saint-Cyr were committed.  Already, in the center, the Hungarians of Colloredo had removed the redoubt of the barrier at Dippodiswalde; on the right, the Austrian artillery had extinguished the fire of our batteries at the gate of Freyberg; and on the left, the Russians and the Prussians penetrated in the suburb of Pirma… the inhabitants, dismayed, barricaded themselves in their houses; the women and the children sought refuge in the cellars: the enemy believed himself sure of victory.  It was while shouting: To Paris! to Paris! that its first columns tried to force the gate of Plauen.

The door opened… it finally was like the eruption of a volcano.  The battalions of the Young Guard, commanded by Tyndal, Cambronne, and directed by General Dumoustier, sprang; the fire from the crenellated walls supported their exit; the redoubt was abandoned with the retreat of the Austrian columns, on all sides a hailstorm of bullets and cannon balls covers the plain.  The enemy moved back terrified.  Its (artillery) pieces were removed with the speed of a race, the gunners killed on their pieces; from all the gates of Dresden there was a simultaneous exit: the French took the offensive again.  The taken redoubts were taken again.  Our cavalry scoured the plain, that Napoleon traversed at the gallop, in the midst of the bullets and of the cannon balls, which wounded at his sides his officers and his aides-de-camp; he appeared all along the line: his presence was electric and the cries of triumph of the enemy were succeeded by clamors of distress.

—Napoleon is in Dresden! cried Schwarzenberg; the favorable moment is lost! there is nothing more we can do but rally ourselves.

And the Union, protected by their batteries, which ceased firing only at nine o'clock in the evening, returned in disorder to take refuge behind the heights where their artillery was placed.

The return of Napoleon had restored as much confidence to the town of Dresden as it had thrown terror among the Union.  The roles were changed, and the following day the French Army attacked in its turn the positions of the enemy.

The rain, which fell in torrents, the water, which converted the battlefield into muddy ground, did not stop the élan of our soldiers: the attack took place on all points and with an equal ardor.  While the center held firm, the two wings extended to outflank the enemy.  The Old Guard, which had the honors of the day of the day before, now formed the reserve.  Like the day before, Napoleon was at the same time present everywhere; he showed himself at all the corps, governed all the movements, and encouraged all the attacks.  At one moment when he went to gallop to a threatened point, he saw a battery of the Guard which, discouraged by the uselessness of its rounds, ceased firing:

—It is necessary, he said, to draw the attention of the enemy to this side: start again to fire.

The artillerists obeyed, and, as from the first discharges, an extraordinary movement, which appeared on the opposite height, seemed to announce that an important person had just been struck among the allies.  It was (it was later learned) General Moreau, recently arrived from America to Europe, who fell thus, in the midst of the Russian staff, reached by a French cannon ball.  A sad and deplorable end for the victor of Hohenlinden!

At three o’clock, the victory was decided, the enemy hastened its retirement; and because in their movement the wings of the French Army had occupied the two principal roadways, the Prince of Schwarzenberg was obliged to withdraw himself into Bohemia by paths and defiles almost impassable.  Napoleon put himself in his pursuit, hoping that General Vandamme, who had left a strong position in Pirma, would benefit from this advantage to add to the ruin of the Union army; but the moment had arrived for Napoleon where the reverses of his lieutenants were to nullify his own successes.

The Battle of Dresden is certainly one of those where the genius of the Emperor shone with the sharpest light.  It was to have immense results: fortune decided somewhat differently.  In Bohemia, Vandamme, far from harrying the retirement of the army beaten in Dresden, left the camp of Pirma, venturing into the deep valley of Toeplitz, and, after two fatal actions, was seen obliged, at Kulm, to lay down his arms.  In Silesia, Macdonald, whose divisions were separated by the rising from the torrents, experienced great disasters on the Katzbach.  In Prussia, Oudinot, instead of entering Berlin, reencountered Bernadotte and Bülow with a hundred and forty thousand men, in the plain of Gross-Beeren and was forced to yield to the numbers and to withdraw himself on Wittemberg.  Marshal Ney, sent to reestablish affairs on this side, was attacked by the enemy at Dennewitz and Juterbogk, and did not have more success.

These events destroyed all the hopes that Napoleon had based on his recent victory.  He had  been reduced to be leaving Dresden in order to gain the borders of his empire.  Leipzig was the point, which he indicated for the union of all the French army corps.

The defection of Bavaria, which had occurred at that time, undoubtedly contributed also to this retrograde movement.  General Wrede, in spite of his king, decided for his army to desert the cause of France, and carried sixty thousand men to the side of Union: it was for us a difference of one hundred twenty thousand combatants.

V.

Leipzig, located on the Elster, at the confluence of the Pleisse and the Partha, offers, in front of the suburbs, beautiful positions to be defended.  Five hundred and thousand men and three thousand pieces of cannon moved there by various paths to decide to whom the dictatorship of Europe would finally belong.  But it took three days of bloody combat to resolve this great question.  Napoleon had arrived there on October 15; and, as of the 16th, a hundred and thirty-six thousand French, attacked by three sides at the same time, went head to head with two hundred and thirty thousand allies.  The army of Schwarzenberg dealt with the army commanded by Napoleon, which extended on the heights that dominate the plain, between Pleisse and Partha; the center at the small village of Vachau.  The French were ninety-six thousand combatants strong; the Austrian prince brought together a hundred and forty thousand of them.  Nevertheless, after a fight which lasted all the day and which was balanced by various successes, the victory remained with the French Army: the enemy had experienced a loss of thirty thousand men, killed, wounded or made captive.  Poniatowski, who had been distinguished there at the head of the Poles, accepted the baton of Marshal of the Empire, on the same ground where he had made crossed the arms with the Austrian column of General Merveldt.

Meanwhile at Vachau on the left, Ney fought supported by only twenty-five thousand men, the attack of seventy thousand Prussians, led by General Blücher, and held, in spite of great losses, the positions, which he was charged to defend.

Behind, on the right of the army and the other side of the Elster, General Bertrand, in Lindenau, was even happier; with his corps of fifteen thousand men he crushed the twenty thousand soldiers of the Austrian Gyulai, and, by removing the road from Erfurth, ensured our communications with the Rhine.

After the battle, Napoleon had Mr. de Merveldt who had been made prisoner, brought before him.  He had known this general officer for a long time.  Mr. de Merveldt had been charged, in Italy, to ask him for an armistice at Leoben; later, a negotiator of Campo-Formio, he had carried the peace treaty to Vienna which saved the house of Austria from the resentments of the Directory; finally it was he who, in the night of Austerlitz, had transmitted to Napoleon the first request for an armistice made by the two overcome emperors.  Napoleon, in his turn, needed a negotiator for a suspension of fighting or peace.  He returned his freedom to him and charged him with his proposals for the allied sovereigns.  The voice of Mr. de Merveldt was to awaken favorable memories for the success of his message.

The day of the 17th thus occurred without action, Napoleon awaiting an answer from the enemy headquarters enemy which did not come and which could not come.  On their side, the Union had calculated that the junction of the reserve army of Bennigsen, which was going to arrive on line the following day at the latest, would increase their forces by one hundred thousand men.  The French Army, with some reinforcements, which had arrived in the night, rose to one hundred twenty-three thousand men.  The number of allies had increased to three hundred and thirty thousand combatants.  Bernadotte, arrived on the field, had met with Blücher; and undoubtedly, so that his former comrades in arms were aware that he had become the ally and stipend of England, his artillery, while putting themselves into batteries, had greeted the troops of the marshal Ney with a discharge of Congreve rockets.  The day of the 18th was to still demonstrate treason without example in military annals.  During the battle, the Saxons, twelve thousand, with forty pieces of artillery, crossed over to the enemy, and the general whom they chose was this same Bernadotte.  So that nothing went amiss with the infamy of their conduct, not content to simply deliver, by their treason, the post that they had been charged to defend, they at once turned their artillery against those of our divisions at whose side they had hitherto fought.  Bernadotte, it is said, accommodated the Saxon officers with much of graciousness.

However all the efforts of the grand allied army had been related to the village of Probsthayde, where Napoleon had stayed during most of the day.  The French troops and the Russian masses had remained all morning motionless under the fire of formidable artillery; but the enemy, in spite of his numerical superiority and his multiplied attacks, had not made any progress.  Our troops had preserved all their positions; only, on the left, the corps of General Reynier, lessened of more than half by the treason of the Saxons, had evacuated, about evening, the village of Schoenfeld and had withdrawn behind the brook at Reudnitz.  Already, in the camp of the foreign sovereigns, the Generals, dejected by such a tough resistance, deliberated if it would not be advisable to give up carrying Leipzig of sharp force, while only leaving to the front of the French Army a corps of observation, and to turn the city by placing itself, by going up the Elster, on the road of Erfurth.

In the French camp, another decision was being made. Napoleon, sitting near the fire of his bivouac, dictated to the major general his orders for the following day, when the Generals who commanded the artillery recounted for him about the exhaustion of the ammunition.  More than ninety-five thousand rounds of artillery had been fired in the course of the day; and, over the five days, more than two hundred and twenty thousand; the reserves were exhausted, only fifteen or sixteen thousand rounds remained there: it was hardly what was needed to maintain firing for two hours.  Restocking was only possible at Magdeburg or Erfurth, the depots closest to the army.

In this state of affairs, Napoleon had to give up holding the battlefield.  He decided on the retirement, but it was still necessary to protect it by combat.  The following day, under the fire of the enemy, the crossing of the Elster took place.  The fate, which weighed on the destinies of our army, rested on a stupid corporal of the engineering arm who was charged to blow up the bridge of Leipzig, but only when all our troops had crossed it and the enemy had arrived.  A hurrah of Cossacks, the shooting of some tirailleurs, made this sapper believe the moment had arrived: he lit at the fuse and the bridge exploded.  Retirement was thus cut off to the corps, which still defended the city.

Marshal Macdonald escaped captivity only while crossing the Elster by swimming.  Brave Poniatowski, while wanting to imitate him, drowned.  Fifteen thousand men, two hundred pieces of artillery and part of the baggage of our army fell into the hands of the enemy.  The retirement of the French Army, badgered by the innumerable cavalry of the Union, was done slowly, but with order.  Our troops, after having crossed again the Saale, moved to the Rhine; but, there still, one of allies who had so freely given up attempted to increase our disasters.  The Bavarian General Wrede, at one time showered with all the benefits of the Emperor, took up a position at Hanau with fifty thousand men in hopes of stopping the French Army and to make cross arms with Napoleon.  It was, with the rigor of the season close, a parody of Kutusov to Beresina.  His temerity accepted, as we will see, was a just punishment.

(The Prince J. Poniatowski, Commander in Chief of the Polish troops)

VI.

In front of Hanau is a deep and thick wood.  The Bavarians filled it with light troops: it was necessary to flush these out.  Our cannon fired some volleys on their advance guard: it collapsed.  Then, five thousand men, who still formed the advance guard of Macdonald and Victor, engaged as tirailleurs in this wood.  The balls whistled and rebounded in the leaves, and soon the wood was ours; but at the time when the light cavalry of Sebastiani was put in motion, he saw forty thousand Bavarians arranged in line and protected by eighty pieces of ordnance.  Behind us was the wood, in front of us the enemy, and after the enemy a river!  Napoleon had around him only ten thousand men, but included in these ten thousand men was the Old Guard: nonetheless this was still desperate.

—Let’s go! The Emperor ordered, it is necessary for us to cross on the bellies of the Bavarian sirs, since they claim to bar us the crossing.

Then, going at the gallop in front of his Guard, he ordered two battalions of foot chasseurs to go ahead to clear the way.

—Do not forget, he told them, that under Louis XIV, here, in this very place, the French guards experienced a violent failure and were thrown into the river.  Make the enemy experience today the same fate and avenge France!

And he gave an order to Drouot before leaving his grenadiers.

The brave general at once put his pieces out into battery: fifteen initially, fifteen following, then twenty and successively up to fifty.  The Old Guard appeared first, the general Curial directing it: it emerged from the wood with bayonet fixed.  The Bavarians fell on our pieces by making a cavalry charge.  The gunners of the Guard defended themselves, carbines in hand, with an admirable address and coolness.  At the same time the Dragoons of the Guard spring, and a combat without measure began between them and the Bavarian cuirassiers.  Sebastiani, with the Guards of Honor and his light cavalry, made a brilliant charge on the Cossacks: the Bavarian line in was broken in its turn.  De Wrede had thought that he would deal only with some remnants, while the elite of our entire army was there, and what men were the grenadiers and the foot chasseurs of the Old Guard, the dragoons and the Guards of Honor!  These troops made in the Bavarian line the impression of a large caliber bullet launched into flight, it passed right through it: also Napoleon said of it that “Hanau had not been a victory, but one well perforated.”  Indeed, the French guards of the time of Louis XIV had been avenged with dignity.

The general Cambronne, the battalion head Albert and the captain Godard, these two last belonging to the 1st Grenadier Regiment of the Old Guard, gave in this day bright evidence of intrepidity.  Captain Godard, at the head of two companies, crushed several Bavarian battalions.

The chasseurs Mère and Molert fell into the fray and each one took a flag of the enemy.

The chasseur Paroume was one of the three soldiers who followed General Cambronne more closely.  This chasseur only went to tear off the guidon (fanon d’un guide) in the middle of a Bavarian battalion.

The other soldiers of the Guard who also distinguished themselves by acts of bravery were the sergeants Thomas, Lefebvre, Colson and Pierson; the corporals Accart, Reych and Guillaume; the grenadiers Mouton, Mortelette, Laurensenart, Favier, Vermol, Roinot, Versigny, Camuset, Lepage, Darsonville, Rebecfat, Lintz, Lajoux, Thiebaud and Vidal.

The sergeants Benoît and Ragot; the quarter master (fourrier) Cadot; the corporals Guyot, Courteous, Leleu, Keller, Thissot and Thevenin; the grenadiers Lefrancors, Kain, Lecocq, Yon, Largart, Marlier and Lecordier, coming to the two companies of chasseurs sent to protect the batteries from the Guard commanded by Drouot, were, amongst all, the models of devotion and intrepidity.

Napoleon had received in Erfurth the good-byes of his brother-in-law Murat, who returned to his States with a heart a little shaken by all the treasons of which he had been the witness.  By seeing him leaving, Napoleon already had a presentiment of his next defection; however he could not separate from this former comrade in arms without embracing him on several occasions, as if he had known that he would not see him again.  Indeed, the King of Naples was to expire, two years later, with the loss of his crown and a fatal death, the error, at the moment that he made an enemy of his benefactor.

Napoleon returned to Paris with part of his Guard.  The year 1813 had seen the French Army brought back to the edges of the Niemen, to banks of the Rhine, and to arrive even to Mainz it had been necessary to fight at every step.  And however, on the narrow way where so many unforeseen defections had tightened its march and had obstructed its movements, trophies had still announced its return.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2006

 

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