The Note-Books of Captain Coignet
Soldier of the Empire, 1799-1816
By Captain Jean-Roch Coignet
Should one scan a list of the numerous diaries and memoirs written by participants in the Napoleonic Wars, it will be very apparent that most of those published in English were written by members of the British Army. The memoirs of French soldiers seem to be mostly confined to those of the Marshals and of people connected to the Napoleon's Imperial Household. Compared to the British, where junior officers and enlisted men wrote most of the memoirs, few of the French memoirs were written by the lower ranks. Those that were include classics by Marbot, Parquin, and Blaze. Greenhill Books have begun reprinting these and have recently published one of the most famous memoirs of the period: The Note-Books of Captain Coignet!
Captain Jean-Roch Coignet was an illiterate peasant who was drafted into the French Army in 1799 and served in most of the major campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars. He was present at Marengo, Austerlitz, Jena, Eylau, Friedland, Spain, Wagram, the Invasion of Russia, Leipzig, and Waterloo. Despite his inexperience and size, Coignet was selected for the Grenadiers of the Guard with less than four years service, for bravery at the battle of Montebello. He served with the Grenadiers for the next eleven years, until they were disbanded after Waterloo.
Although Coignet did not learn to read or write until he was thirty-three years old and then only because he needed to learn how to be promoted to corporal, he leaves a vivid picture of what life was like for a soldier during that turbulent period. He does not attempt to describe the battles he fought in, but only those portions of them that he personally saw. Because he was in the Guard, which was normally kept in reserve, he actually saw very little combat. However his descriptions of his actions he fought in are told in a simple but colorful manner. For example his description of Kellerman's charge at Marengo puts the reader right in the thick of the action - where incidentally he was!
"The cavalry charges were terrible. Kellerman made three in succession with his dragoons; he led them forward and led them back. The whole of that body of cavalry leaped over me as I lay stunned in the ditch. I got rid of my knapsack, my cartridge-pouch, and my sabre. I took hold of the tail of a retreating dragoon's horse, leaving all my belongings in the ditch. I made a few strides behind that horse which carried me away and then fell senseless, not being able to breathe any longer. But, thank God, I was saved! But for my head of hair, which I still have at seventy-two years of age, I should have been killed."
The strength of Coignet's writing lies not in his battle scenes, but in his ability to describe what life was like both on campaign and in garrison. Whether telling of life in the mud of Eastern Europe during 1807 or the murder of two Horse Grenadiers by Spanish monks in 1808, Coignet spins a yarn that will hold the reader's interest to the very end. He is at best when writing of the little things that so few others wrote about - foraging for food, the comradery between the officers and men, and the drudgery that is often so much of a soldier's life. He even tells how they solved the age-old problem of shaving on a battlefield:
"By the light of the pine logs I shaved those of our comrades who needed it most. They each sat down on the rump of a dead horse, which had been there long enough for the intense cold to freeze it as hard as a stone. I had in my knapsack a towel, which I tied round their necks, and I had also some soap, which I mixed with snow melted over the fire. I daubed it over them with my hand, and then performed the operation. Perched on the top of his bundles of straw, the Emperor watched this strange spectacle, and burst into peals of laughter. I shaved at least a score of them that night."
As a member of the 1st Battalion of the 1st Grenadiers of the Old Guard, he witnessed many of the great events of the era. Whether it was the meeting of the two Emperors on the raft at Tilsit or the wedding of Napoleon to Marie Louise or the distribution of the Eagles in 1815, Coignet saw it all and recorded it with great detail. For example at Napoleon's wedding in 1810 he describes the wives of the Empire's greatest dignitaries with a critical eye, noting their low cut gowns and bare skin. At the distribution of the Eagles to the army in 1815, he writes that "...the vows were made without warmth; there was but little enthusiasm: the shouts were not like those of Austerlitz and Wagram, and the Emperor perceived it."
Because he was in the Guard, Coignet also saw much of the day-to-day happenings within the Napoleon's household. He writes of hunts and dinners and provides vignettes that can not be found any other place. For example Napoleon's wife, Marie Louise loved to play billiards with the Grenadiers of the Guards. Much to the delight of the grenadiers, she would lay across the table to get a good shot and according to Coignet, he was "...always on the watch to see what I could." I wonder whether he would have lasted in the Imperial Guard if Napoleon knew of this!
Finally, Coignet provides portraits of some of the great men of the time and how they handled the stress of battle, the victories, and the defeat. He tells of how he watched Napoleon being such a great hurry that he vaulted completely over his horse and then took his frustration out on the groom with his whip. His picture of Marshal Davout at the disbanding of the Grande Armée in 1815 is symbolic of the end of the era:
"The great marshal was seen behind his batteries, his arms behind him, and his face anxious. No one spoke to him. He was no longer the warrior whom I had formerly seen in his brilliance on the field of battle..."
Coignet's appeal lies in the simplicity of his writing and his eye for detail. He grabs the reader's attention and keeps it. Not because it is great prose, but because it is like listening to an old veteran spinning war stories in a tavern. The reader is transported to the battlefields and campfires of campaigns of long ago, following the Eagle to both glory and defeat! And when you close the book you will be left with a greater appreciation for the motivation, valor, and sacrifices of the soldiers whose only ambition were to serve their Emperor!
Reviewed by Bob Burnham, FINS
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