The Russian Occupation of Nogent-sur-Seine, February 1814
By Ludovic Lasson; Translated by Yves Martin
One of the on-going debates is why the French people still supported Napoleon in 1814 and then welcomed him back in 1815? The following three pieces are contemporary testimonials written by French civilians about the occupation of their town, Nogent-sur-Seine, by Russian Cossacks in February 1814. Is it eyewitness accounts at its best or is it propaganda? The following were printed in the Annuaire de l'Aube, 1861, which took the pieces from Journal de l'Empir.
The Municipal Body of the town of Nogent-sur-Seine, still under the shock of the scenes of horror which they witnessed while the town was controlled by the enemy, believes it is its duty to paint to you the facts which happened within the city walls and in the surrounding communities.
The enemy walked into town on the 12th January, at night, from that moment until the 21st, the day we were freed by the arrival of the army under the command of H.M. the Emperor, a part of the town was burned, the rest was looted in the most cruel manner. Doors were shattered in almost all the houses, furniture broken, mirrors broken, sheets and wardrobes stolen. The poor townsfolks were obliged to wander about in the fields and the woods so as to not to be mistreated by the villains which were running about the town. Men were undressed in the streets, one man was quartered, many were wounded and children died from the sight of their parents' sufferings. As guides, the enemy would capture the first citizen they would encounter, put a rope around his neck and lead him at the crack of the whip. In all of the town, only four homes escaped looting. Amongst the many inhuman deeds of these barbaric hordes, we will tell only one: a respectable woman of eighty years had a ring with a small diamond studded on to it. The villains who were robbing her, in haste of taking this ring, cut off her finger and such revolt and pain took her into death. The feeble sex was not respected and many a woman has had to undergo the most outrageous treatments. In the surrounding towns, hordes of looters were about robbing, abusing women, stealing horses, cattle and in the end burning the barns and buildings. These atrocious excesses were not the work of a few stragglers; generals themselves, in the homes where they were staying, once they were done with the supplies provided by their hosts would openly ravish the goods that were to their liking such as clocks, sheets, etc. Under the specific orders of these Generals, the supplies intended for Paris, especially coal were burnt or sunk. They even had let flow burning barges with the probable scheme of setting fire to all the banks of the Seine. The presence of generals, even that of M. Barclay de Tolly, did not stop the looting. General Barclay de Tolly published on the 19th that the most severe orders were given to reprimand looting, yet it did not stop one instant.
On the 20th, one hour before the French came, the General in charge of the rearguard, sent a detachment to have the rest of the town set on fire, it is only by the care of the people that this fire was stopped and only one farm burned. In the fury caused by their vain triumphs, the Russians publicly proclaimed they would soon enter Paris and they would take off all its precious monuments, immortal trophies of our victories, loot Paris, ravish its women to populate their horrible deserts, blow up the Tuileries and, in one word, turn the capital city of fine arts into a heap of ruins. Such is the faithful rendering of the facts we witnessed and we can assure you that, despite the horror which has taken us over, this is still rather understated rather than exaggerated.
May this cry of indignation seize every Frenchman's heart, let them know where their true interest lies: that of rallying to the flags of our august Emperor to push back into their awful climate, the barbaric hordes which want to cover France.
Blacque, Commander of the Garde Nationale (de Nogent), Delaunay Mayor, Dauvet, Delagneau, Nouart, Beaudoin, Razy, Morin.
Nogent sur Seine, February 23rd, 1814
I receive your two letters only now. You are asking me details about our poor town. It withstood a siege for two days and two nights. Fighting went on in the streets. Six hundred men only defended it. We lost at most thirty and the enemy two thousand as the position was ours. One had to see it to believe it. The Chateau de La Chapelle was besieged all day on the 10th. On the 11th fighting was in Nogent, starting at nine in the morning, the guns quieted only during the night of the Saturday to the Sunday. One of our bridges was blown up. During the bombardment, our women and children retreated to the cellar, but on the 12th at one in the morning, as our home was circled by fire, we walked over the bridges under a continuous cross-fire: we were lucky not to be hit. My neighbour, Deschamps carried his poor invalid mother on his shoulders and, me, my little Zulmé. We went on to Villenauxe, where the enemy soon followed us.
I left two days later to come back home. I cannot describe the disaster that I found. Everything has been ransacked, devastated, broken, my mattresses, blankets, quilts, sheets, wardrobe, that of my wife and children - all has been stolen. I have only left what I wear, and, worse of all, I had dressed up with the poorest clothing I own on the day I fled. The town was looted for nine days. Some houses were looted up to five or six times. One cannot tell the atrocities, the cruelty of these savages, you probably have seen those stories in the newspapers; nothing is being exaggerated. There are even multiple horrors, which are untold. They were savage enough to cut off the finger of mother Gélin to steal a ring, the poor woman died the next day from her sufferings.
They quartered M.Hubert, a cloth merchant, to take the money he had hidden in the belt of his breeches, then they threw him in the mud on the street. As a firefight was then happening, he was struck by two balls which, happily enough for him, put an end to his sufferings. They put to the fire some fifty homes. At the time of my writing, we heard the canon and it is said that fighting is going on towards Mery. The Emperor himself is in command and we all hope for the best. May God make it so that those villains be beaten and driven back beyond the Rhine.
(Journal de l'Empire 2nd March 1814)
Amongst the deeds of courage that distinguish our braves, one should be retold and is testified by a superior officer of the 32nd Line.
At the affair in Nogent, a battalion from this regiment had formed into a square; a young conscript of 19 years of age, having been separated from his battalion ended up chased by Cossacks which were pressing on to him vehemently while yelling ferociously as such is their habit. As he was about to be taken over, this young man, keeping a cool head, jumps into a ditch filled with water, crosses it with his musket held high above, leans against a tree, ten paces from the cossacks and, there, calmly loading his weapon several times, kills four of those savages. The musketry from the battalion having obliged the enemy to retreat, this brave and dashing young man runs back to take his rank with his comrades who had just admired his courage.
The name of this brave fellow is Breautier. He was under fire for the second time. He was knighted in the order of the Legion of Honour by decree of the last 25th of February.
(Journal de l'Empire 12th March 1814)