Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics




YEAR 1814.





While the European diplomats divided the remains of the French Empire by reconstituting a new political and military system, Napoleon left Fontainebleau.  The words which he had addressed to his Guard, in this historical court of the Cheval-Blanc, had produced, as we said, a sharp impression, even on the foreign commissioners; they had lofty enough sentiments, a proud enough soul, to be touched by these farewells of an old war chief to his comrades in arms: it was Caesar, given up by fortune, giving the last kiss to the chiefs of his legions.  The instructions of the governments of Europe were precise: “The Emperor Napoleon, treated with all the respect due to a sovereign, will be the Master to follow the road of his choosing. The commissioners were not made his guard; the Emperor was not a captive: he will only be followed to protect him from popular reactions or revenge by the parties.”

All was thus sad in Fontainebleau as at the funeral of a great Empire.  The hearts, which had remained faithful to Napoleon wanted to accompany him.  What would they do in this territory of France? They could not see it, they only knew their Emperor; there was a fatherland only with him, it was no longer France without him.  The old soldiers of the Guard, gathered in groups, had all offered to accompany him; the ground of the fatherland no longer held any attraction for them.  Napoleon had asked for four hundred men of goodwill, he would have found four thousand of them among his old soldiers.  Therefore a battalion of infantry was granted to him, composed of six hundred ten non commissioned officers and soldiers, not including the officers, made of six companies, including three of grenadiers and three of chasseurs; an artillery company, one hundred twenty men strong, and a hundred and twenty Polish light horsemen*.  The General Cambronne took command of this troop, though still suffering from a serious wound received at the battle of Craonne.

*The General Friant, colonel-general of foot grenadiers, assisted by Generals Petit and Pelet, was charged with the organization of this battalion.

On April 8, 1814, at seven o'clock in the morning, these men started from Fontainebleau for the Isle of Elba, music at the head and accompanied by all their officers.  Here, we will let speak the Lieutenant Colonel Laborde, executive officer of this elite troop called the Battalion of the Isle of Elba, which, after having remained with Napoleon all the time of his sojourn in Porto-Longone, returned with him to Paris the following year, and was part of what one then called the le bataillon sacré.

“On April 7, this officer said**, the Emperor reviewed us, as all the remainder of the Guard, to which he read his farewells in the court of the Palace of Fontainebleau; he kissed the eagle of the 1st Grenadier Regiment and General Petit, who commanded this regiment.”

**In a small booklet entitled: Napoleon and his Guard, Relation of the Voyage from Fontainebleau to the Isle of Elba, in 1814.

“The day before, the officers of the Guard who were to go to the Isle of Elba had been introduced to the Emperor.”

“After the reception, Napoleon, accompanied by the Generals Drouot, Bertrand, Caulaincourt and of the Duke of Bassano, walked into his apartments.  It is there that we saw a great number of officers of all arms coming to request the honor to accompany him in his exile, in the capacity of simple grenadiers. The Emperor was moved to see a so great devotion to his person on behalf of simple officers, while most of those that he had heaped with favors, and which he had to some extent been associated with his glory, paid him greater ingratitude.”

“Shortly after this last review, we left Fontainebleau.”

“At the moment of the departure, General Cambronne, always present, ordered to me to go at once to Orleans, accompanied by some Polish lancers and of a small detachment of infantry commanded by the Sergeant Delaye.  We were to be joined by Mr. Peyrusse, who belonged to the people attached to the new house of the Emperor, as paymaster of the crown.  He had started from Fontainebleau before us to receive from the hands of the Empress Marie-Louise, then at Orleans, the treasury pertaining to the Emperor and amounting to forty-two million.  He recommended to me at the same time to put a guard on this treasure, while waiting so that it arrived with the column.”

“The following day, while entering this city, I met Captain Gout, who belonged to the squadrons, which had accompanied Marie-Louise.  I learned from this officer that Mr. Peyrusse was, under a disguise, as the caretaker of the hotel in whom the Empress was residing, and that he was sorry to see me arrive, because he feared that the little of funds he had said he could recover might not be able to be removed.”

“Conducted to Mr. Peyrusse, this one said to me that Marie-Louise had left in the morning for Blois, and that he had been able to save only one covered wagon with torn canvas, of the treasure of the Emperor, containing eight million in silver; the remainder having been taken by extreme force the day before, by order of Louis XVIII and the Emperor of Austria, by a chief of a platoon of elite gendarmes*, at the head of eighty gendarmes, and led to Rambouillet.”

*Jamain, later lieutenant general.

“Accompanied by Mr. Peyrusse, I moved at once towards an inn located in one of the suburbs of Orleans, where the wagon in question was sheltered.  It indeed contained eight million in silver money: I established there, to safeguard, the sergeant of the chasseurs Waters, with eight men.”

“General Cambronne arrived the following day with the column; I went to his meeting, and I informed him of the type of ambush that imperial treasure had been subject to.”

“We went together to a provisional general who commanded Orleans for Louis XVIII, who, pleading that he had not received the news of our arrival, refused to let us enter the city; we had to thus go to take our quarters in a village two miles away, where we were accommodated perfectly.  After which we resumed the order to return to Briare, to await there the passage of the Emperor, who arrived with his suite, the following day, around the six o’clock in the evening, accompanied by General Lefebvre-Desnouettes, at the head of the Horse Chasseurs of the Guard.  Napoleon slept in Briare, and left the following day at daybreak to go to the Isle of Elba, by taking the road of Bourbonnais.  We started ourselves immediately after, while following the path to Bourgogne.  Everywhere where we passed, we were accommodated with enthusiasm and by the cries of Vive l’Empereur!

“Already established in the localities where we must cross, but fearing this Imperial Guard who so many times had overcome them, the Austrians, as soon as we arrive, hastened, to the great satisfaction of the inhabitants, by going to reside in the barns and leaving to us their residences.”

“Although the government of the Bourbons was recognized almost generally in France, the column which went to the Isle of Elba none the less preserved the tricolor cockade: we were never worried; only, an event when we arrived in Lyon resulted in a troubling event.  I preceded the battalion by twenty-four hours, to prepare the lodgings, the food and the means for transport. I had as an escort a Polish sergeant and four lancers; moreover, I was accompanied by an officer of Hungarian hussars, who was used to safeguard me as I crossed places occupied by the foreign troops, and to accompany me to the chiefs who had the command of them.  Arriving at the town hall, where a post of townsfolk without uniform was, hardly had we dismounted than the chief of this station, man of rather bad demeanor and wearing on his hat an enormous white cockade, came to me, bared saber in hand, and directed me, with a furious air, to throw away and make my escort throw away the tricolor cockade.  I sprang on him with a raised saber, and I chased him up to the court of the town hall, where he reached the outside by a rear door.  The Hungarian officer, who believed me attacked, imitated my example, and we remained masters of the battlefield.  The remainder of the escort, which had not approved of the conduct of this first one, did not take any part in this business.”

“General Saline, with the Austria service, who commanded the town of Lyons, was placed in the hotel of the same town hall.  I went immediately to his place, to inform him of the arrival of the troops which went to the Isle of Elba.  I testified my surprise to him to the type of ambush that had been attempted on my person, and he answered me:

—Your conduct, mister officer, honors you: I approve of it more, especially as I am of French origin.”

“Then he complimented the Hungarian officer on the support that he had lent to me, made an officer of his staff accompany us to the suburb by Guillotičre, to establish the housing of the troops there, and invited me to dinner the very same day.  Returning with his invitation, I received the most gracious reception from him, and, throughout the who meal, which was set in one of the rooms of the town hall, I was the object of the most delicate attentions, not only on his part, but also of that of Count de Fargues, Mayor of Lyon, who was among the number of the guests.”

“The day of the arrival of the column in Lyon, and until its departure, the Austrian troops, fifteen thousand men, commanded by Prince Hesse-Hombourg, who had his quarters there, were held out of the city, with their artillery, matches lit, and spending the night in bivouac.”

“While the column crossed the Place Bellecour to go to the suburb of Guillotičre, where residences had been assigned to them, of bad worthless fellows, among whom were some Austrian officers, were heard to shout: “Lay down the tricolor cockade!”

“Colonel Mallet, who commanded the battalion, halted with his troop, and, approaching the group alone, pronounced in a loud voice:

—That the one or the ones that shouted:  Lay down the tricolor cockade! Present themselves; I am ready, to give them satisfaction, because I would not like to expose them to being punished by the brave men at the head of which I am.”

“Nobody answered, and all those, which formed this hostile group, hastened to a cafe.  Colonel Mallet was satisfied to make a gesture of contempt, and on the order, which he gave, the column restarted for Guillotičre.”

“These same individuals believed they would have better luck with rear-guard, which escorted the luggage, made up of eight men commanded by Sergeant Grollet, of the chasseurs; because hardly had this rear-guard, arrived at the level of the cafe, that a young Austrian officer began to shout, by drawing his saber:  “Lay down the tricolor cockade!” Then Sergeant Grollet stopped and said to him:

—What did you ask?

—That you take off the tricolor cockade, he answered to him.”

“But, with these words, the sergeant sprang on the Austrian officer, tore his saber from him, broke it into two, threw the pieces into his face and quietly carried on his way, without being worried again.”

“We arrived at Savone, after a long march.  The following day an officer general who occupied this place with two Sicilian regiments invited us, as much in his name as in that of the officers under his command, to a banquet, during which toasts were made to the Emperor and the Imperial Guard.  During the course of this dinner, General Cambronne ordered to me to embark immediately on board a felucca to the Isle of Elba, then on arrival, to go to recount to the Emperor the arrival of the column in Savone.  I left at ten o'clock in the evening and I landed on May 24 in Rio, a small port of the new imperial residence; I slept there, and the following day I went to Porto-Ferrajo, where I arrived around the ten o’clock in the morning.”

“I went immediately to General Bertrand, Grand-Marshal of the Palace, to present the forthcoming arrival of the battalion.  It led me at once in the Emperor, so that I could inform His Majesty myself of this good news.”

“The dwelling of Napoleon, though modest, was rather roomy; it was built in an amphitheatre, and dominated Porto-Ferrajo.  We crossed a main building and we found His Majesty, walking in a vast garden from where one could sight distinctly in the distance, extending over the sea, and with the naked eye, the coast of Tuscany and even the green shutters of the closest houses of Bastia. Napoleon, in his usual dress of the horse chasseurs of the Guard, having a portable telescope, turned back to us; on the noise of our steps, he was turned around; General Bertrand said to him:

—Sire, I have the honor to introduce Mr. Laborde to you, executive officer of the Guard of Your Majesty, who comes to announce to you the arrival of the column at Savone, and to receive your orders at the same time.”

“This news appeared to give great pleasure to the Emperor; he asked me many questions relating to the events of our voyage; but always returned to his obsession:

—And this column, he added, will arrive it soon? …”

“And there was always in this repetition of Napoleon, so flattering for the Guard, an inexpressible feeling of tenderness.”

“A few days were passed however before the arrival of the small flotilla.  During this interval, Napoleon called on me several times, and he repeated, as before:

—But how is it that the column has not arrived? There is only one step from here to Savone.”

“Then, in his impatience, and as if he had suspected the sincerity of the report that I had made to him, he looked at me fixedly:

—Of which regiment of the Guard did you form part of at the time of the departure from Fontainebleau? He asked me.

—Of the 2nd Foot Chasseurs of your Guard, Sire.”

“It stamped his foot, convulsively tightened his telescope, which he did not put down, left and retraced his steps; then he added, making a slight salute to me:

—Sir, you can withdraw yourself.”

“Finally the fifth day, the impatience of Napoleon was all the more great, as I had said to him that there had been, at Savone, a small collision between our troops and the Sicilians, following which one of our grenadiers had received two blows of a saber on the head; but still he asked me.  I found him with a sad face and sorry heart.  He walked, like the first time, in the garden:

—Eh well, mister major, he said to me, our men do not arrive!  I kept silent.

—But wouldn't this collision about which you spoke have some troublesome consequences?

—Sire, I do not think so, since even shortly after the affair; we were invited by the Sicilian officers, for a meal, where I was placed beside Colonel Mallet.

—Ah! Mallet! Yes, I know… Good, good!”

“Then, began walking more quickly, put his hand up to his eyes, took his telescope and looked again at the coasts of Tuscany:

—Here they are, my faith!  He cried in a loud voice.”

“And on saying these words, his face suddenly filled with color.

—Mister major, he then began again, prepare all that is necessary for the establishment of my brave men.”

“It was then two hours after midday.  At four o’clock the flotilla let their sails drop.  Napoleon went to the port with the Generals Bertrand and Drouot.  General Cambronne approached him.

—You are very late, Cambronne, the Emperor told him the; this delay made me spend anxious hours… but since you here, all is forgotten.”

“Cambronne was excused due to the difficulty in bringing together sufficient means of transport and on the head winds, which been an obstacle at their embarkation.  Then the troops sprang ashore, with the cries repeated a thousand times of Vive l’Empereur!  Part of the men were placed in the barracks Saint Francois, contiguous to the residence of Napoleon; the others, at the fort of l’Etoile, which dominates the town of Porto-Ferrajo.  General Cambronne was vested with command of this fort, and was placed there himself.”

“A few days after our arrival, we donned the cockade of the Island of Elba, that the Emperor had adopted as sovereign of this island, it being red, was surmounted by three gold bees.”


Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2006


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