Cover up at Mohrungen 25 January 1807
By T.E. Crowdy
Eclipsed by the bloodbath of Eylau, the battle of Mohrungen on 25 January 1807 has become something of a footnote in the history of Napoleon’s winter campaign in East Prussia and Poland. Here Marshal Bernadotte, (the Prince of Ponte-Corvo, to give him his Imperial title) clashed with the advanced guard of the Russians under Bennigsen. The ensuing battle was a typical example of a contact action between two probing forces as yet unaware of the other’s intentions. However, this battle has a special interest for one French regiment; a regiment of great celebrity which ended the day narrowly having avoided utter humiliation and disgrace.
One should begin this investigation with the 55th bulletin of the Grand Army, dated Warsaw, 29 January 1807:
Here are the details of the combat of Mohrungen:
The most dramatic episode of the battle appears to be the fighting around the eagle of the 9th Light Infantry Regiment. We find further evidence of this mortal combat in the Fastes de la legion d’honneur in the entry under Lieutenant Pierre Donot who we learn fell at Mohrungen ‘rallying his soldiers in the middle of the enemy line to seize back their standard which they had lost in the melee.’
This is stuff of Napoleonic legend. An officer decorated for valour on the Marengo campaign (Donot led a special company of swimmers which forced several river crossings) laying down his life in a bitter hand-to-hand struggle around the regiment’s eagle standard – its most treasured asset; its honour embodied. There is no doubt the loss of an eagle would have been seen a very serious thing.
This was the regiment which gloriously led Desaix’s counterattack at Marengo on 14 June 1800 and smashed the Austrian advanced guard on its bayonets. This was the regiment which the First Consul dubbed l’incomparable and awarded a special set of flags in 1802. It was the regiment which audaciously attacked the Austrian advanced guard as it attempted to escape from Ulm; the regiment which stormed the bridges at Halle to prevent the Prussians regrouping after Jena. It was a regiment commanded by the son-in-law of the artist Jacques-Louis David. Claude Marie Meunier was one of Napoleon’s handpicked men, drawn from the Consular Guard to command the Ninth when its leader was made general in recognition of Marengo; Meunier, a veteran of Egypt, a former Foot Guide, whose marriage was witnessed by Josephine herself. Despite this pedigree, despite Meunier’s court connections, the bulletin is clear at what the loss of an eagle would mean. To repeat the bulletin: this insult with which this brave regiment was going to be tarnished forever, and which neither victory nor the glory acquired in hundred fights would have washed away …
Of course there is another side to this story, one which has slowly unravelled over the last two hundred years and now at least might be laid to rest. The truth is, the Ninth’s second battalion did lose the standard it went into battle with and there was no great heroic struggle to win it back as described.
Although Napoleon’s bulletins were famous for their economies of truth, in this case, no fault can be laid at the Emperor’s feet. Meunier deceived Napoleon over what really occurred and in their lifetime, all but one of the regiment’s officers promulgated the myth.
In 1804 the 9th Light Infantry were awarded two eagles. The eagle of the second battalion was handed over to a certain Sergeant-Major Nicolas Fouquet. We know this thanks to a remarkable document which today resides in the archives at the Service Historique de la Défense at the chateau de Vincennes. In 1839 a Captain Dubois of the latter 9th Light Infantry (formed in 1820) was ordered to collate all the surviving correspondence of the regiment of Napoleonic vintage and to write an essay detailing the major feats in the unit’s history. Dubois’s essay was partly published by Colonel Brahut in his larger work, Historiques des régiments de l'armée française (Paris, J. Dumaine, 1846), but the original handwritten manuscript survives [code Mr1842]. When writing his essay, Dubois corresponded with a number of Napoleonic veterans who had served in the regiment, and although the correspondence is now lost, the key anecdotes were recorded, key among them being Captain (retired) Fouquet’s testimony.
We know from Fouquet that in return for the two eagles the regiment was presented by Napoleon, that two of the special 1802 standards were handed over in return [the third ended up in Fouquet’s possession at the end of the wars]. We also know from Fouquet’s correspondence with Dubois that at Haslach (11 October 1805) the second battalion’s eagle standard was shot to pieces and in reward for somehow keeping it aloft, Sergeant Major Fouquet was promoted to the officer corps. The importance of these two pieces of evidence will be revealed in due course.
Interestingly, Dubois’ document does not dwell upon Mohrungen, except to repeat the official line. Of course, at the time of writing, many officers were still alive, including the venerable Baron Meunier. One would not expect Fouquet, the ex-sergeant-major who personally took the eagle from Napoleon’s hand, to rat on his former commander. It was not until 1873 with the publishing of the memoirs of Baron Félix Girod de l’Ain, then a young subaltern in the Ninth in 1807, that something approaching the truth came out.
According to Girod there was an accident before Mohrungen and the second battalion’s Eagle was damaged, with the ‘bird’ section coming away from its plinth. The Eagles were not cast as a single piece, but in sections. Perhaps the damage received at Haslach sixteen months before had weakened it? In any case, the ‘bird’ was wrapped up and put into a caisson until such time as a smithy could be found to make the repairs. The second battalion therefore marched under a standard which contained a staff, a gilded plinth bearing the numeral ‘9’, and perhaps the tattered remnants of a flag.
On the morning of 25 January 1807, the Ninth was ordered up in support of Rivaud’s division which had clashed with the Russian advanced guard. On arrival, the second battalion of the Ninth was sent forward by Bernadotte to seize the village of Pfarrersfeldchen which was occupied by Russian sharpshooters. This battalion advanced over a frozen lake to attack the village from the flank. The Russian skirmishers were driven off and the battalion took up position in the gardens and behind walls of scattered farm buildings.
According to Russian accounts cited in Serge Andolenko’s Aigles de Napoléon contre drapeaux du Tsar, the Russian 25th Jäger Regiment was ordered to attack, but having not long been formed and being unused to the hazards of war, this regiment was put into disorder by the Ninth and fell back. The Russians then quickly counterattacked with two companies of the 5th Jäger and six companies of the Escatherinoslav Grenadiers.
At some point in the fighting, Battalion Commander Rameaux was wounded. Perhaps this had a hand in the confusion that followed. The Russians appeared to be in no mood to trade volleys with the Ninth, but pressed forward in manner which showed they wanted to fight hand to hand. The result of this attack was decisive. Girod admitted the second battalion was forced to flee back through the village having ‘lost near to 300 men and a good number of officers; several of whom were taken prisoner …’
From the Russian accounts, this force advanced ‘without burning a cartridge, crossed the fences and exterminated all those who found themselves in the farm and in the gardens. On this occasion, the flag of the 9th Light Infantry was taken.’ [General Elmolov cited by Andolenko pp128-129]
Girod concurs with this event: ‘During the flight of our second battalion, three eagle-bearers had been killed in succession; a carabineer had seized the flag and was trying to save it, when he was reached by a Russian officer on horseback; the carabineer launched the flag over a garden wall; but that did not prevent it from falling into hands of the enemy.’ [Girod pp.29-30]
Again from Andolenko, two officers appear to have been involved in the capture. Captain Reitzenstein is said to have been wounded capturing the flag, while Adjutant Basile Borodkine of the same regiment (5th Jäger) actually seized it. Furthermore the regimental history of the 95th Krasnmoyarsk Infantry Regiment (formerly 5th Jäger) indicates there were just a few survivors from the Ninth and these only found safety in flight.
These accounts require great scrutiny. The Russian accounts use strong language like ‘exterminate’ when talking about clearing the gardens and buildings. Was this language accurate or over-exuberance on the part of later writers? Girod himself admits to large number of casualties [near to 300 men] and if these casualties were sustained in hand-to-hand combat [the Russians launched a bayonet attack] one would expect a significant number of fatalities on the part of the French. To what extent are these accounts backed by the records in the Ninth’s regimental rolls?
The following casualties for 25 January 1807 at Mohrungen were recorded, all of them in the second battalion:
In addition there are a number of officer casualties which were cited in the regimental history:
According to these records, the second battalion sustained 24 casualties on 25 January: 10 were killed in action, with 1 mortally wounded; 5 were wounded and 8 taken prisoner, but may also have been wounded prior to capture. This is nothing like the 300 Girod speaks of. Nor does it do justice to the Russian claims of very few escaping and an extermination of the enemy. This leads to three conclusions:
In 1808 there was an inspection of the Ninth and many soldiers were pensioned off due to wounds and sickness [see Livret pour la revue d’inspection, Landau 1 January 1808, Général de Division Schauenburg]. In this document there is some evidence the number of wounded might have been higher at Mohrungen than the rolls suggest. These men were pensioned off for wounds sustained at Mohrungen:
Of these, you will note Démange and Lebassac have already been listed in the regimental rolls. This still only accounts for 32 casualties. Even if we allow for an equal, or twice as many lightly wounded, we are still several hundred casualties short of Girod’s estimate. One must conclude that the battalion did not stand in the face of the Russian attack but ran. If the Russians were not firing, but marching forwards in a bayonet attack, then this supports why the casualty figure appears to be relatively low.
What then about Girod’s claim of the eagle being thrown by a carabineer – do the sources support this train of events?
Girod mentions three eagle bearers were killed in succession before a fourth man tried to get it away. In 1807 the standard would have been carried by a sergeant-major and we know it ends up in the hands of a carabineer who picked it up and ran, then threw it over a wall when he was ridden down.
Sure enough we find a Sergeant-major Albert Michel Nicolas Hautecoeur killed in action. It is extremely likely he held the standard at the beginning of the action. If the last man to hold the flag was a carabineer, would it not make sense for the second and third bearers to also come from the same company? Officially the colour party was composed of the battalion’s quartermaster corporals, but in all my research on the Ninth, I have not found any reference to these men being killed or wounded and from anecdotal evidence, they appeared to be something of a law to themselves, lingering behind the lines. Indeed, it does not make sense to place the company bookkeepers in the hottest part of the fight, surrounding the colours. These men were far too useful arranging lodging and distributions to be risked in combat. If not the quartermaster corporals then, would it not make sense that the eagle was protected by a guard of the stoutest men of the battalion, the carabineers? To confirm Girod’s story, we therefore need three carabineers who fit the bill.
We have four carabineers who might have taken part in the doomed attempt to save the eagle.
One is tempted to eliminate Tailleur from the equation. The fact he was not taken prisoner indicates he was recovered from the field by his comrades, only to die later in the day. In the haste at which the retreat appears to have taken place, it is unlikely he was involved. This leaves three men: Corporal Toussaint, Alondrel and Lebassac.
One might pose a question. If the battalion was running away when the action around the eagle took place, how did the French know what occurred? Surely if someone had seen the eagle being thrown, there would have been some attempt to recover it? If there had been a rescue attempt, casualties would have been far higher and the Russian accounts would have played up the epic nature of the struggle. The evidence does not support this. More likely the carabineer who threw the eagle survived to later report what had occurred.
You will note that Lebassac appears on the list of men pensioned off in 1808. He had been captured by the Russians during the battle and was released at the end of the war with Russia after Friedland, arriving back with the regiment in the late autumn of 1807. Further, Lebassac was wounded by a sabre cut and a musket shot in the battle. This implies he came into physical contact with a Russian infantry officer and was injured by his sabre. Was Lebassac the carabineer who attempted to throw the flag to safety?
Taking matters a step further, according to Andolenko, the flag was recovered by an Adujant Borodkine, and that a Captain Reitzenstein was wounded in its capture. Perhaps Lebassac threw the flag, drew his short grenadier sabre and wounded Reitzenstein. He was perhaps then struck by a bullet fired by one of the advancing Russian light infantrymen and fell to the ground and was captured. Meanwhile Borodkine went after the flag and recovered it behind the wall.
Putting all the available data together, a picture begins to take shape of the nature of this action that day. We will never know the full truth of that day for sure, but the following account is probably far closer to the truth than how Meunier later reported. Let us rehearse the events one final time.
The second battalion advanced through the snow, over the frozen lake and drove away the Russian skirmishers, then took up position around the farm buildings and gardens of Pfarrersfeldchen. The first Russian attack came in and was met by a withering fusillade. As the Russians fall back, their skirmishers returned fire. The Ninth’s battalion commander fell and his men went to his aid to recover him. Shortly afterwards, Surgeon Ballesdent is also struck trying to administer aid. The eagle bearer, Sergeant-major Hautecoeur fell, perhaps to an aimed ball from the Russian sharpshooters. The battalion’s standard was then picked up by one of the carabineers forming the colour party; perhaps Corporal Toussaint.
There is now some confusion. The battalion had broken up around the different farm buildings to take cover and wait for reinforcements. Cohesion suffered. Men were away from their officers and could not hear words of command. The second Russian attack began. The bayonets of the Russian troops came down with a tremendous ‘hurrah’. The French officers looked at one another with their commander struck down. They were unsupported and had already fired off a great deal of ammunition. It was unlikely aid will arrive before the Russians, so a decision was made to retire. A shout went up to rally on the far side of the village. The drummers beat the rally and with the Russians coming closer, the light infantrymen raced off through the snow. In their haste few noticed the eagle bearer fall.
Carabineer Alondrel picked up the standard, supported only by Carabineer Lebassac. By now the Russians were close enough to see the vulnerability of this trophy. Another Russian musket spat flame and Carabineer Alondrel fell. Lebassac prized the standard from Alondrel’s grasp and ran with all his breath after his comrades. He was by now some way behind. The snow was deep and the going difficult. The cold air burned in his lungs. Over his shoulder he saw a party of Russians bearing down on him. One of them was on a horse and bearing down on him quickly. Alondrel threw the eagle like a javelin over a nearby wall in the hope it would be saved and then turned to face his assailants. He drew his sabre and wounded Captain Reitzenstein, but was then in turn struck by a bullet. He fell into the snow and was captured.
The above account appears plausible, that the colour party was isolated and deliberately targeted by the advancing Russian sharpshooters. The buildings around the village would have obscured the action from view and in the haste to escape, no one realised, or thought to look back to see what happened to the eagle.
As the second battalion rushed out of the village into the snowfields beyond, Bernadotte witnessed the disorder. He ordered Meunier to advance in support with the Ninth’s first battalion while he rode among the retreating chasseurs to rally them. The battle was now in full swing. General Dupont arrived with two more regiments and came to support the Ninth, attacking the Russian left wing. Fearful they might be cut off, the Russians withdrew from the field and the battle was now declared in favour of the French.
At some point, the officers and soldiers of the second battalion must have realised their standard was missing. It must have been a heart wrenching moment. In a search of the battlefield they would have found the bodies of their fallen comrades without the standard and finally realised it had in fact been captured.
According to Girod, on the evening after the battle, as the soldiers prepared to bivouac in two feet of snow, rumours began to spread among Dupont’s other regiments that the Ninth had lost an eagle. Meunier had sworn a personal oath to Napoleon to defend the eagle. When the colonels had been asked ‘Will you swear to sacrifice your lives in their defence’ it had not been empty rhetoric. Meunier was facing the end of his career, a state of disgrace that might oblige him to take his own life. However, Meunier too had a lucky star and was presented with an enormous stroke of good fortune.
That evening an ammunition wagon which had been missing for several days turned up. It contained the ‘bird’ section of the eagle. Meunier quickly ordered ‘the eagle’ to be mounted on a hop pole and paraded around. This stroke of luck was all the more incredible because every other vehicle in the regiment’s baggage train had been captured and taken off by Cossacks during the battle. If this wagon had not become lost, it too would have been captured and the Russians would have had both parts of the standard.
To explain why the eagle was in such a poor state of repair, Meunier put out a story that the eagle had indeed fallen to the enemy while the regiment had been dispersed in skirmish formation, but his men had gloriously re-conquered it. What reason did anyone have to doubt him? It was an amazingly good story.
Perhaps at this point they wove the death of Lieutenant Donot into this story. A holder of legion of honour dying in defence of the flag. Perhaps Donot did fall near to the colour party; perhaps he did die a heroic death, stumbling through the snow trying to get the standard to safety; we will never know.
According to Girod it was not until two years later when Colonel Meunier was proposed for the rank of brigade general, Napoleon scratched his name from the proposition in his own hand, saying ‘this colonel lost an eagle at Mohrungen’. The Emperor had finally learned the truth from the Russian gazettes, which reported its capture. By then it was too late for Napoleon to amend the heroic story as it had already been told to the French public. He could hardly gain anything from exposing Jacques-Louis David’s son-in-law as a liar.
There is one last twist to the story. The Russians took the damaged standard to St Petersburg and deposited in the Cathedral Notre Dame de Kazan on 31 March 1807. Writing in 1969, Andolenko gave two accounts which indicated the flag had been given ‘under the Republic, in recompense of the bravery, to the demi-brigade which carried the name of l’incomparable.’
The silks attached to the eagles in 1804 were uniform in presentation. None bore regimental mottos. This made Andolenko wonder if the Russians had actually seized the 1802 pattern flag, the flag with the motto l’incomparable emblazoned on it. Did the Ninth really attach their 1802 colours to the Eagle staff? Apparently there is a precedent for this. Andolenko cites the example of the 57th Line, whom Napoleon dubbed le Terrible. Before the Eagles were distributed Napoleon ordered the colonel of the 57th to return a set of flags which bore the motto. When the eagles were distributed, the 57th’s eagle had been fitted with the old flags. Had Napoleon done this same service for the Ninth?
Well, perhaps one day we will find the broken eagle in a box somewhere in the Russian archives. Perhaps it will have a few shards of green cloth confirming the presence of the 1802 pattern flag. However, to return to Dubois’ essay, Fouquet reported handing two of the regiment’s flags over. We must assume Fouquet would have mentioned something irregular as the Ninth receiving its old colours back. The likelihood is that the silk was the standard tricolour.
There is one last footnote to this story. With light infantry regiments often dispersed as skirmishers, their eagle escorts were vulnerable. It is no surprise to read Napoleon’s subsequent order of 26 March 1807: ‘His Majesty orders that the regiments of light infantry will have no Eagles with the army, and that the Eagles of these regiments will be sent to the depots. This arm must not have an Eagle in front of the enemy.’
This article is adapted from a chapter of my book Incomparable: Napoleon’s 9th Light Infantry Regiment (Osprey, 2012).
The following books are useful for reference on the above subject:
Girod de l’Ain, Général, Dix ans de mes souvenirs militaires de 1805 à 1815 (Paris: J. Dumaine, 1873).
Loÿ, L., Historiques du 84e régiment d’infanterie de ligne ‘Un Contre Dix’; du 9e régiment d’infanterie légère ‘l’Incomparable’; et du 4e régiment de voltigeurs de la Garde 1684–1904 (Lille: L. Danel, 1905)
Andolenko, C. R., Aigles de Napoleon contre Drapeaux du Tsar [Paris: Eurimprim, 1969],
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