THE GUARD DURING THE BELGIAN CAMPAIGN, IN 1815.
On his return from the
Through these feelings of enthusiasm ran something sad which interfered
with it: this fanaticism which, formerly, led while signing to the
triumph, did not exist any more in the ranks of the soldiers of the
Guard; they had the rage in their hearts against the common enemy,
but a rage cools when it was filled with only these words: “To
overcome, if it is possible; to die, if we cannot.” The
chiefs of corps were too enlightened not to see that the resources
of the country were disproportionate compared to the immense preparations
However Napoleon had chosen, like always, lieutenants of capacity
and energy: the Generals Michel, Reille, Gerard, Vandamme, Mouton, were officers
of first merit. The military superiority of the Marshal Soult
made him the perfect choice for chief-of-staff for the army. A
great organizer, he was to thus replace Berthier, who had not come
again to serve with his old general, his emperor: a captain of the
bodyguards of Louis XVIII, he had withdrawn himself to
The Marshal Ney had asked for a command that could not be refused for his brilliant valor, with the sacrifice that he had made a solemn oath: he had given recent pledges; but, while sacrificing the Bourbons, he had hardly regained the confidence of the Emperor. Marshal Grouchy also received a high command: the military career of Marshal Grouchy did not have anything which placed him above the Generals Gerard, Reille, Mouton, Lamarque, Clausel, and so many of the other officers of merit who surrounded Napoleon. Thus the Emperor, while entering the campaign, did not have any more the men whom he usually had under his control. He still found hot devotion, passionate heads, but he knew little about their valor and their peculiarities. The only military talent of the first line was Marshal Soult: while placing him close to him as chief of the army, Napoleon used him away from his experiences and well below his merit. And then most had been done with too much precipitation: the soldiers and the chiefs had not had time to get to know one another; the regiments of the Guard had been formed with haste, they had been recruited in all the manners; their ranks had been increased with officers on half-pay, who had more courage than instruction and experience. It was still an Imperial Guard, but there was no longer a hierarchy. The stay out of Paris, which, in the times of glory, did nothing but strengthen the officer in his devotion to the fatherland, had, on the contrary, weakened; the soldier of the Guard, who had always had such a profound instinct, seemed to understand that he would not have all France behind him, any more, as formerly; the middle-class class was frightened, the higher classes hostile to the order of things. The federalist remained, but the latter had excited an extreme antipathy, even among the troops of line.
However, by June 1, the strength of our forces had changed to four hundred thousand men; but the revived insurrection in the Vendée, the guarding of the ports, that of the borders of the South and the East, the garrisons of the fortified towns of the North, did not leave more than one hundred twenty thousand men available. Napoleon, nevertheless, decided (according to his habit) to take the offensive; and a few days before his departure to put himself at the head of his army, the following article was read le Moniteur, written in the form of a bulletin, relating to the Imperial Guard:
“The Old Guard was increased by three battalions; twelve others, made of returning soldiers who had made several campaigns, have been just joined together with the Young Guard.
The Imperial Guard receives many reinforcements every day; shortly,
it will be hold forty thousand men. General Drouot is named
assistant chief-of-staff of the Guard; General Friand commands
the foot grenadiers, and General Morand
the foot chasseurs of the Old Guard. General Guyot commands
the horse grenadiers; General Ornano, the
dragoons; General Colbert, the lancers; and General Lefèvre-Desnouettes,
the horse chasseurs. Colonel Deschamps commands the light artillery,
which will soon have mounted eighty pieces of cannon. Colonel
Germanowsky, who accompanied the Emperor to the
The Generals Brayer, Meunier and Barrois command three divisions of infantry of the Young Guard.
The Emperor reviewed the various corps of the Imperial Guard, the gendarmes of the Guard of Paris and the sapper-firemen. All these troops were in their most brilliant attire. His Majesty traversed the ranks on foot, and inspected the regiments in the greatest detail. The review, started at one o’clock, only finished at six o'clock in evening. During the whole time it lasted, the cries of Vive l’Empereur! did not cease until the re-entry of His Majesty with Elysée-Napoleon.”
The army had been divided into three bodies: Ney commanded the left, forty-eight thousand men strong and with one hundred sixteen pieces of cannon: Grouchy, on the right flank, numbered under his command thirty-eight thousand men and a hundred and twelve pieces of ordnance; finally, in the center, the Emperor had brought together, with one hundred thirty-four guns, thirty thousand men, of which the Old Guard formed a part: it was the elite of his troops.
All his provisions made, Napoleon left
*The total manpower of the Guard present under the arms was only fourteen thousand infantrymen and four thousand cavalrymen; the artillery was composed of ninety-six pieces of ordnance: in all, including the administration, twenty-five thousand men more or less.
On June 15, the army crossed the border, crossed the Sambre and
Marshal Ney had to march to a position at Quatre-Bras, a point where various roadways which led to Brussels met, in order to contain the English and to prevent them from bringing help to the Prussians, whom the Emperor, with the remainder of his forces, was to attack; but the bad condition of the roads prevented the Prince of Moskowa from carrying out this movement in the course of the day, as he had he had been commanded.
Napoleon found the 16th, close to Fleurus, between Saint-Amand and Sombref, the army of Blücher, a hundred thousand men strong, arranged for battle, and facing the Sambre: the French Army was put on line in front of the Prussians, and Napoleon sent at once to Ney the order to leave only a detachment of observation at the Quatre-Bras, and to turn back in all haste on Bry, to take the enemy in the rear.
He expected with assurance the effect of this measurement, which
was to ensure the destruction of the Prussian Army, and he was on
the point of beginning the combat as soon as the guns announced the
arrival of the Marshal, with Quatre-Bras
only two and a half miles separated from Sombref. Time
passed, and Ney did not appear. At four hours after midday,
in spite of the delay of his lieutenant, the Emperor resolved to
attack; moments were invaluable: by letting the day finish, he was
not likely to find the occasion to beat the isolated Prussian Army
again. The effort of our troops was thus dedicated to the left,
towards Saint-Amand, in order to attract Blücher on this side, so
that he could not conduct his retirement; all was laid out to push
through his center at soon has forces were removed from it. The
Prussians fought with resolution. At six o’clock, nothing
was still decided. A last and vigorous attack took place: the
The delay allotted to Ney had not been due to a glorious combat on his part: this Marshal, having marched a little slowly, had found the English already established at Quatre-Bras, and, in spite of the obstinacy of his attacks, he had not been able to dislodge them.
However the goal of Napoleon was reached: the enemy line was crossed,
and Blücher separated from
This had taken positions in front of the
The rain, which had not ceased falling in torrents during the day from the 17th and in the night from the 17 and 18, had so much softened the ground that it was impossible to operate there, although the weather had cleared up the 18th in the morning; a few hours had to pass, before the sun had returned the ground to some consistency.
The Emperor had reconnoitered the position of the enemy (in front
of the village of the Mount-Saint-Jean, at the branching of the roads
of Nivelle and
The combat engaged, around eleven o’clock, with an attack
of the French left against the enemy right, attacks ordered in order
to mislead the English general; and indeed,
The strength of defense had answered that of the attack; and, in spite of the superiority of the enemy artillery, which, favored by its immobility, continued to fire, our columns did not make any seeming progress: already la Haie-Saint had been taken, and Ney was established there. Suddenly, the Emperor was given the announcement that troops were seen moving to the side of Saint-Lambert: initially it was believed that it was the corps of Grouchy, which, attracted by the sound of the guns, came to take part in the combat; but soon the prisoners let it made known that the column which emerged of the defile (it had not been occupied!) was the corps of Bulow, which, having conducted its junction with Blücher, formed the advanced guard of the Prussian Army.
Napoleon sadly could not believe his eyes; but finally it well became necessary, as it was obvious.
At once, and without ceasing fighting in the center, he gave the
order to the Young Guard, which had been put in motion to support
Marshal Ney, to go on the right, in order to contain the Prussians. — It
was yet only two o’clock in the afternoon, and he hoped to
have time to complete the defeat of
Already the road of Brussels was covered with fugitives; the soldiers,
throwing down their arms, sought refuge in the close forest; Wellington
regarded himself as overcome, and, despairing to prolong resistance,
was going to give the signal for retreat, when Blücher and his
columns appeared. Part of his divisions, debouching onto the
battlefield, linked the corps of Bulow with the left of
The certainty of help had revived the courage of the English: as did moving from of a passive defense to a furious attack. Our soldiers, exhausted by the combat of the day, pulled back; the Guard advanced in vain to support them. The arrival of the Prussians on la Haie-Saint completely changed the face of the combat: this place was taken again by the united Prussians and English. The Guard, formed in square, made a heroic resistance in vain; the superior forces of the enemy, the night coming on, a fatal cry of save themselves who can! escaped from some cowards or launched by some traitors decided the route of the French Army… Napoleon wanted to die: he almost had to be forced to leave the battlefield.
Only, the battalions of the Guard, Michel at their head, did not move back. In the middle of the obstinate and unceasingly renewed charges, their general could then, and with truth, make this sublime answer to the summons of the enemy: “La Guard meurt et ne se rend pas!” (The Guard dies and does not give up!) *
*M. the Count Michel, Captain of the 45th Line, and M. the Baron Michel, Auditor for the Council of State, Sub-Prefect of Bar-sur-Aube, son of M. the Lieutenant General Michel, killed at Waterloo at the head of the squares of grenadiers of the Old Imperial Guard, addressed, in July 1845, a request to the King to ask for a royal decree that: La Guard meurt et ne se rend pas! be found these these words, which had been pronounced by their father, were not to be attributed to General Cambronne.
In support of their request, Misters Michel sons established, by the testimony of Misters Cordier, Deputy of the Jura; Pons, de l’Hérault; Maurice Duval, General Harlet, Colonel Magnant, the Mayor of the town of Nantes, and other people worthy of the time, that the honorable General Cambronne himself had constantly repudiated these words, that, by error, one ascribed to him; and that elsewhere none the contemporary historians had attributed them to him in a formal way.
This request quoted moreover the passages of several works which dispute General Cambronne’s use of these fine words, by expressly allotting them to the General Michel, inter alia: Historical Annals of France, V. II, p. 642; The Biography of the Contemporaries, V. 1st, p. 736; the Biographical Dictionary of the Dead and the Living, V. VII, p. 178; Victories and Conquests, V. XXX, p. 223, and V. XXXI, in the table; the Biography of the Living Men (article CAMBRONNE); the Dictionary of the Conversation, V.X, p. 113; Ephemeral Universes, V. VI, p.335; the Record of the Legion of Honor, V. IV, p. 320; etc. etc.
Indeed, with the number of particular testimonies that Misters Michel produced to prove that these words had been pronounced by their famous father, we can quote Franck, adjutant-sub-officer of the Invalids, an ancient foot chasseur of the Old Guard, eyewitness of death of General Michel; Baron Martenot, who commanded the battalion in which the Emperor placed himself for a moment at the end of the battle; finally Bertrand himself: but worthy the companion in exile of Napoleon was not restricted to give to his declaration in the form of a letter; he consigned it, this declaration, on a monument which the sons of General Michel will undoubtedly preserve eternally, like an inappreciable relic: on a detached stone of the tomb of Napoleon, the grand marshal wrote these words and signed in his hand:
“To the Baroness Michel, widow of General Michel, killed at
Stone of the tomb of Sainte-Helena.
As of this moment, the retirement of the Guard had to take place
creating new wonders and bloody sacrifices. The fire of the
enemy was at four hundred paces behind the unhappy French Army; the
roadways were cut. The general pell-mell, which had included
Napoleon with the remains of his Guard, soon confused, through the
fields and in the middle of the darkness, cavalry, infantry, artillery,
boxes and luggage. Officers and soldiers of the Guard were
seen committing suicide out of despair, so as not to survive the
disaster that they had just led. General Duchesne, one of the
more brave generals of the Guard, was taken and massacred by the
Prussians. The humanity, the friendship, the pain of the Belgians
concealed a crowd of wounded from Prussian cruelty. The despair
of those who survived and followed Napoleon to
The Imperial staff gained Jemmapes, where it vainly tried to organize
some means of defense. The equipment of the Emperor had been
taken: a cart was used to transport him from
Thus ended the campaign of
One year later, on June 18, 1816, one of the faithful of Napoleon having reminded him, in Saint-Helena, that this day was the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, this memory produced on the so mobile features of the Emperor an indefinable impression:
“Incomprehensible day! He exclaimed
with pain; contest of amazing fates! … Grouchy! Ney! d’Erlon! … Was it only misfortune there? … Ah! poor
COMPOSITION AND NUMERICAL STRENGTH OF THE GUARD IN 1815
GENERAL RECAPITULATION OF THE STRENGTH OF THE GUARD BY YEAR.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2007
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