Letter of the Prince of Moskowa to His Excellency the Duke of Otranto about Waterloo
Transcribed By Susan Howard
M. le Duc, - the most false and defamatory reports have been spreading for some days over the public mind, upon the conduct which I have pursued during this short and unfortunate campaign. the journals have repeated these odious calumnies, and appear to lend them credit. After having fought for 25 years for my country, after having shed my blood for its glory and independence, an attempt is made to accuse me of treason; and attempt is made to mark me out to the people, and the army itself, as the author of the disaster it has just experienced.
Forced to break silence, while it is always painful to speak of oneself, and above all to answer calumnies, I address myself to you, Sir, as the President of the Provisional Government, for the purpose of laying before you a faithful statement of the events I have witnessed. On the 11th of June, I received an order from the Minister of War to repair to the Imperial presence. I had no command, and no information upon the composition and strength of the army. Neither the Emperor nor his Minister had given me any previous hint, from which I could anticipate that I should be employed in the present campaign. I was consequently taken by surprise, wthout horses, without accoutrements, and without money, and I was obliged to borrow the necessary expenses of my journey. Having arrived on the 12th at Laon, on the 13th at Avesnes, and on the 14th at Beaumont, I purchased in this last city two horses form the Duke of Treviso, with which I repaired on the 15th to Charleroi, accompanied by my first Aide-de-Camp, the only officer who attended me. I arrived at the moment when the enemy, attacked by our troops, was retreating upon Fleurus and Gosselies.
The Emperor ordered me immediately to put myself at the head of the 1st and 2nd corps of infantry, commanded by Lieutenant Generals d'Erlon and Reille, of the division of light cavalry of Lieutenant General Pine, of the division of light cavalry of the guard under the command of Lieutenant Generals Lefebvre Desnouettes and Colbert, and of two divisions of cavalry of the Count Valmy, forming in all eight divisions of infantry, and four of cavalry. With these troops, a part of which only I had as yet under my immediate command, I pursued the enemy, and forced him to evacuate Gosselies, Frasnes, Millet, and Hoppognies. There they took up a position for the night, with the exception of the 1st corps, which was still at Marchiennes, and which did not join me till the following day.
On the 16th I received orders to attack the English in their position at Quatre Bras. We advanced towards the enemy with an enthusiasm difficult to be described. nothing resisted our impetuosity. The battle became general, and victory was no longer doubtful, when, at the moment that I intended to order up the 1st corps of infantry, which had been left by me in reserve at Frasnes, I learned that the Emperor had disposed of it without advertising me of the circumstance, as well as of the division of Girard of the second corps, on purpose to direct them upon St. Amand, and to strengthen his left wing, which was vigorously engaged with the Prussians. The shock which this intellligence gave me confounded me. Having no longer under me more than three divisions, instead of the eight upon which I calculated, I was obliged to renounce the hopes of victory; and in spite of all my efforts, in spite of the intrepidity and devotion of my troops, my utmost efforts after that could only maintain me in my position till the close of the day. About 9 o'clock the first corps was sent me by the Emperor, to whom it had been of no service. Thus 25 or 30,000 men were, I may say, paralysed, and were idly paraded during the whole of the battle from the right to the left, and the left to the right, withour firing a shot.
It is impossible for me, Sir, not to arrest your attention for a moment upon these details, in order to bring before your view all the consequences of this false movement, and in general of the bad arrangements during the whole of the day. By what fatality, for example, did the Emperor, instead of leading all his forces against Lord Wellington, who would have been attacked unawares, and could not have resisted, consider this attack as secondary? How did the Emperor, after the passage of the Sambre, conceive it possible to fight two battles on the same day? It was to oppose forces double our's, and to do what military men who were witnesses of it can scarcely yet comprehend. Instead of this, had he left a corps of observation to watch the Prussians, and marched with his most powerful masses to support me, the English army had undoubtedly been destroyed between Quatre Bras and Genappes; and this position, which separated the two allied armies, being once in our power, would have opened for the Emperor an opportunity of advancing to the right of the Prussians, and of crushing them in their turn. The general opinion in France, and especially in the army, was, that the Emperor would have bent his whole efforts to annhilate first the English army; and circumstances were favourable for the accomplishment of such a project: but fate ordered otherwise.
On the 17th the army marched in the direction of Mont St Jean.
On the 18th the battle began at one o'clock, and though the bulletin which details it makes no mention of me, it is not necessary for me to mention that I was engaged in it. Lieutenant General Drouot has already spoken of that battle in the House of Peers. His narration is accurate, with the exception of some important facts which he has passed over in silence, or of which he was ignorant, and which it is now my duty to declare. About seven o'clock in the evening, after the most frightlful carnage which I have ever witnessed, General Labedoyere came to me with a message form the Emperor, that Marshal Grouchy had arrived on our right and attacked the left of the English and Prussians united. This General Officer, in riding along the lines, spread this intelligence among the soldiers, whose courage and devotion remained unshaken, and who gave new proofs of them at that moment, in spite of the fatigue which they experienced. Immediately after, what was my astonsihment, I should rather say indignation, when I learned, that so far from Marshal Grouchy having arrived to support us, as the whole army had been assured, between 40 and 50,000 Prussians attacked our extreme right, and forced it to retire!
Whether the Emperor was deceived with regard to the time when the Marshal could support him, or whether the march of the Marshal was retarded by the efforts of the enemy longer than was calculated upon, the fact is, that at the moment when his arrival was announced to us, he was only at Wavre upon the Dyle, which to us was the same as if he had been a hundred leagues from the field of battle.
A short time afterwards I saw four regiments of the middle guard, conducted by the Emperor, arriving. With these troops he wished to renew the attack, and to penetrate the centre of the enemy. He ordered me to lead them on; generals, officers and soldiers all displayed the greatest intrepidity, but this body of troops was too weak to resist for a long time the forces opposed to it by the enemy, and it was soon necessary to renounce the hope which this attack had for a few moments inspired. General Friant had been struck with a ball by my side, and I myself had my horse killed, and fell under it. The brave men who will return from this terrible battle will, I hope, do me the justice to say that they saw me on foot with sword in hand during the whole of the evening, and that I only quitted the scene of carnage among the last, and at the moment when retreat could no longer be prevented. At the same time the Prussians continued their offensive movements, and our right sensibly retired, the English advanced in their turn. there remained to us still four squares of the old guard to protect the retreat. These brave grenadiers, the choice of the army, forced succesively to retire, yielded ground foot by foot till overwhelmed by numbers they were almost entirely annhiliated. From that moment a retrograde movement was declared, and the army formed nothing but a confused mass. There was not, however, a total rout, nor the cry of sauve qui peut, as has been calumniously stated in the bulletin. As for myself, constantly in the rear-guard, which I followed on foot, having all my horses killed, worn out wth fatigue, covered with contusions, and having no longer the strength to march, I owe my life to a corporal who supported me on the road, and did not abandon me during the retreat. At eleven at night I found Lieutenant General Lefebvre Desnouettes, and one of his officers, Major Schmidt, had the generosity to give me the only horse whch remained to him. In this manner I arrived at Marchienne-au-pont at four o'clock in the morning, alone, without any officers of my staff, ignorant of what had become of the Emperor, who before the end of the battle had entirely disappeared, and who I was allowed to believe might be either killed or taken prisoner. General Pamphile Lacroix, chief of staff of the second corps, whom I found in this city, having told me that the Emperor was at Charleroi, I was led to suppose that his Majesty was going to put himself at the head of Marshal Grouchy's corps, to cover the Sambre, and to facilitate to the troops the means of rallying towards Avesnes, and with this persuasion I went to Beaumont; but parties of cavalry following us too near, and having already intercepted the roads of Maubeuge and Philippeville, I became sensible of the impossibility of arresting a single soldier on that point to oppose the progress of the victorious enemy. I continued my march upon Avesnes, where I could obtain no intelligence of what had become of the Emepror.
In this state of matters, having no knowledge of his Majesty nor of the Major-General, confusion increasing every moment, and with the exception of some fragments of regiments of the guard and of the line, everyone following his own inclination, I determined immediately to go to Paris by St.Quentin, to disclose as quickly as possible the true state of affairs to the Minister of War; that he might send to the army some fresh troops, and take the measures which circumstances rendered necessary. At my arrival at Bourget, 3 leagues from Paris, I learned that the Emperor had passed there at nine o'clock in the morning.
Such, M. le Duc, is a history of this calamitous campaign.
Now, I ask those who have survived this fine and numerous army, how I can be accused of the disasters of which it has been the victim, and of which your military annals furnish no example. I have, it is said, betrayed my country - I who, to serve it, have shown a zeal whch I perhaps have carried to an extravagant height; but this calumy is supported by no fact, by no circumstance. But how can these odious reports, whch spread with frightful rapidity, be arrested? If, in the researches which I could make on this subject, I did not fear almost as much to discover as to be ignorant of the truth, I would say, that all was a tendency to conviince that I have been unworthily deceived, and that it is attempted to cover with the pretence of treason the faults and extravagancies of this campaign, faults which have not been avowed in the bulletins that have appeared, and against which I in vain raised that voice of truth which I will yet cause to resound in the House of Peers. I expect from the candour of your Excellency, and from your indulgence to me, that you will cause this letter to be inserted in the Journal, and give it the greatest possible publicity.
I renew to your Excellency, &c.
Marshal, Prince of Moskowa.
Paris, June 26, 1815.
The Times of London 13 July 1815
Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2007