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Our Allies the Bavarians Appendix V: Memories of General d’Albignac

Our Allies the Bavarians Appendix V: Memories of General d’Albignac

Our Allies the Bavarians Appendix V: Memories of General d’Albignac

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GENERAL MAURICE D’ALBIGNAC.[1]

(From the portrait belonging to the Comte de Chansiergues.)

 

D’Albignac, in 1812, was adjutant-commander, chief of staff of the 6th Corps formed of the Bavarian contingents and commanded by Gouvion Saint-Cyr; he left from the battles of Polotsk, where the Bavarian troops distinguished themselves, Memories of which the original manuscript was later copied, completed and annotated by his own hand.

Thanks to the kind communication that M. the Count de Chansiergues-Ornano, grand-nephew of General d’Albignac, kindly sent us, this is the first of these two manuscripts that we are publishing today; some of the observations which accompany the second manuscript, and which reveal the critical and biting spirit of the former aide-de-camp of King Jerome of Westphalia have been placed, in notes, at the bottom of the pages in which d’Albignac had them interspersed.

POLOTSK AFFAIRS (1812)

On 31 July, the Emperor was in Vitebsk with his Guard and various army corps;[2] the 6th Corps was at Bechenkovitchi, the 1st Division on the right bank of the Dvina to cover the bridgehead that was being built, the 2nd on the left bank, encamped on the heights, when the Duke of Reggio, in front of Polotsk by seven leagues, after a very vigorous affair where the division Le Grand overwhelmed at Swochisna a Russian corps commanded by General Gulniew (the latter was killed), made the Verdier Division cross the river in front of Swochisna; having advanced too far and not being able to be supported in time, this division was brought back in disorder after considerable losses, all its baggage was lost.  This reversal determined the Duke of Reggio to retire on Polotsk, by Beloye (Belaya); the bulletins spoke only of the good affair of General Le Grand but did not say a word of that of General Verdier.

The 6th Corps received the order on 7 August to move to Polotsk to support the 2nd, it arrived there on the 7th, following the left bank; the road to the right bank was the shortest, but we could not take it because the 6th Corps did not have a cavalryman:  the King of Naples had requested and obtained the six light horse regiments.[3]

On the 8th, the Duke of Reggio gave orders to march in front of Polotsk to move on the Drisa (Верхнедви́нск).  The left was given to General Saint-Cyr and marched from Ghemselvo on Gramouchicha; the right, commanded by the Marshal himself, debouched through Beloye.  On the 9th there were orders on counter-orders; in the evening, the left moved: the vanguard to Proudenki, the center to Fnipowo or Philipowo, the right to Zamchenoui.  The next day, the 10th, it was agreed that General Saint-Cyr would cross the Drisa to Walentzouï, the Marshal on the right heading for Ziabki; the whole line was to form on the Svol’na, the left on the Svol’na itself.  The plan was changed again: Marshal Oudinot with the 2nd Corps arrived at Walentzouï where a bridge had been built, the 2nd Corps alone was sent to the Svol’na; the 6th Corps was placed in the second line in front of Walentzouï.

The Russian outposts had withdrawn the night on Valentzouï, had crossed the Svol’na again and warned the Count of Wittgenstein, after having beaten the Verdier Division on 31 July and followed until near Polotsk the 2nd Corps, wanted to march with all its forces on Dunabourg, where Marshal Macdonald was with Grandjean’s Division; Marshal Oudinot’s goal on leaving Polotsk, after having united the 6th Corps to the 2nd, and marching on the Svol’na, was to attack Count Wittgenstein and disembark Marshal Macdonald in order to put him in a position to attack Riga; but it was necessary to carry out vigorously and without changing the plan two or three times a day.

On 11 August, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the 2nd Corps was attacked on the Svol’na; the Duke of Reggio galloped off from Valentzouï, the 6th Corps stood ready to march.  The Russians suddenly attacked the Svol’na bridge, the passage was vigorously disputed, the bridge broken[4], the affair was confined to a cannonade in which we lost many people, because the Russians were firing with heavy caliber; the 2nd Corps responded with some poor pieces:  the system of General Dulauloy, commanding the artillery of the 2nd Corps, consisted in always having his artillery in the rear of the army, lest it be taken:  in this way, no harm was done to the enemy, who, on the contrary, putting in battery a formidable artillery, crushed everything that presented itself.  The Svol’na River, although very small, was very deep, the edges very steep, the crossing was very difficult:  if we had left (sic) a corps of 6,000 or 8,000 Russians on the only bridge that existed, and then attacked with all the 2nd Corps, on would have had a good fight:  but the cannonade lasted up to night fall, the 6th Corps had been ordered to retake the Drisa and to move on Beloye in front of the woods, to cover Polotsk; the 2nd Corps withdrew on the 12th to Walentzouï and re-crossed the Drisa the night of the 12th to the 13th.

Marshal Oudinot was afraid of being turned on his right.  The 6th Corps went into a forced march, on the 12th, to Beloye.  On the 13th, the Duke of Reggio marched with the 2nd Corps on Fnipowo or Philipowo:  it was a superb place to fight; he returned the 19th Division of the 6th Corps, commanded by General Deroy, to Losowka, an intermediate position between Beloye and Fnipowo.  This march, after that of the day before, crushed this division, the men of which were falling from fatigue and hunger.  General Saint-Cyr remained at the forefront as far as Swochisna:  he received orders to return to the 2nd Corps; on the 14th, he was ordered to resume his position at Swochisna:  this is how we destroy troops in useless marches and countermarches.

On the 14th, Marshal Oudinot arrived at Losowka.  On the 15th, at 6 o’clock in the morning, the outposts of General Saint-Cyr were attacked all along the line in front of the Beloye plain; the troops took up their position:  they consisted of the Corbineau Brigade, a light cavalry reduced to 600 horses, and the Wrede Division approximately 8,000 to 9,000 men strong, 30 pieces of cannon.  General Saint-Cyr’s opinion was that it was necessary to fight in this position, to avoid congestion in the wood; Marshal Oudinot’s advice was to retire to Polotsk: we therefore set out at night, by a single road, into the woods; in Ghemselvo we met the 2nd Corps arriving from Losowka. The Wrede Division formed the rear guard.  They came to the sight of Polotsk.  In this retreat, we lost many people, the men were exhausted with fatigue, the country offered no resources for food:  we lost more than 4,000 men who were taken by the Russians:  had we lost more by fighting, the troops would not have been demoralized.

On the 16th, the enemy followed the movements of the 6th and 2nd Corps, began to emerge in sight of Polotsk by the road to Beloye.  The Le Grand, Verdier and Wrede divisions took position; General Wrede was sent in front of the village of Spas, on the road to Nevel (Не́вель), to observe the Russians’ left which was beginning to appear; General Deroy, with his division arriving directly from Losowka on the 14th and exhausted, took up position behind the Polota, behind the village of Spas, covering the front and the right of Polotsk.  On the evening of the 16th, General Wrede was attacked but maintained his position where he spent the night; Verdier’s division was also slightly engaged, General Verdier was wounded and left for Vilna.

During the night of the 16th to the 17th, Marshal Oudinot made the artillery of the 2nd Corps cross again the Dvina, he kept only a few pieces of 3; likewise, the pieces 12 of the 2nd Corps, which were in battery on the ramparts bordering the town of Polotsk to its left, were replaced by pieces of 12 of the 6th Corps:  General Dulauloy was still afraid of losing his artillery.  This great artillery crossing was not completed until the 17th at noon.  The 6th Corps kept its 60 pieces, minus the 12 pieces of 12 put on the ramparts of Polotsk.  Almost all the cavalry were sent to the other side of the Dvina, with the Verdier Division commanded by General Valentin.  Merle’s division occupied the left, supported by the Dvina, partially in the city.  Le Grand’s division formed the center, at the union of the roads to Petersburg and Nevel.

On the 17th, at daybreak, General Saint-Cyr ordered General Wrede to cross the little river Polota again, passing through the village of Spas:  General Wrede carried out his movement in three lines without expressing worry by the enemy, left the village of Spas occupied by three battalions and formed behind the Polota in a single line;[5] the 19th Division (Deroy), 500 paces behind, formed a second line.  The Corbineau Light Brigade was put to the rear and to the right of the 6th Corps, its posts observing the movements of the extreme left of the enemy.  At 7 o’clock, the Russians came out on the main road to Nevel, with their artillery in mind, which began to fire on the French right, made up of the 6th Corps; at the same time, the center, made up of Le Grand’s division, was attacked by the Russians arriving on the road to Petersburg via Beloye.

The left of the Russians having deployed attacked the village of Spas guarded by three battalions of the Wrede Division:  this village was taken and recaptured three times, and finally remained with the Bavarians who, supported by 30 pieces of artillery, did much harm to the enemy.  We fought until 6 in the evening.  The fighting in the village of Spas was very lively and did honor to the Bavarians.  General Le Grand had to sustain the fire of Russian unicorns and pieces of 12 and 18 throughout the day, to which he responded with 3 pounders; he supported by his right the Bavarians who were at Spas.  General Le Grand lost many people to enemy artillery fire; the Bavarians lost about 500 men killed or wounded; all positions were retained.  Around 6 o’clock, Marshal Oudinot having wanted to go in front of the village of Spas with the skirmishers of the 11th Light Infantry, was wounded by a bullet in the kidneys; he sent to warn General Saint-Cyr, to whom he gave command of the two army corps: the latter was then occupied in making heal a strong contusion of Biscayan which he had received in the thigh in the morning.

The night of the 17th to the 18th passed quietly.  On the morning of the 18th, the Duke of Reggio left for Vilna, General Dulauloy left with him; the artillery was commanded by the brave General Aubry.  The Russian army had deployed; it skirted Polotsk from the Dvina towards the mouth of the Polota:  its right was therefore at the Dvina, its center vis-à-vis General Le Grand, its left vis-à-vis Spas, in front of the 6th Corps.  It was probably on this point that the great blows would be directed, because the left and the center of Polotsk defend themselves naturally, and that its right, after having taking Spas and crossed the Polota, presented a large plain and the remains of some old redoubts built by the Swedes of Charles XII.

On the 18th, at 6 o’clock in the morning, General Saint-Cyr made his battle plan, changed that of the day before which was to cross the Dvina, ordered the baggage to follow on the heights of the left bank of the Dvina the path of Bechenkovitchi and Vitebsk which dominates the right bank; he wanted to make the enemy believe that the retreat movement was beginning:  the latter, very quiet, waited until all his troops and artillery had arrived, and had a bridge built a league below Polotsk:  six Russian regiments were designated to create a diversion, take back and disturb our crossing in the retreat movement.  General Saint-Cyr contented himself with observing this bridge, which could not be built before nightfall, and ordered the artillery of the 2nd Corps, the Valentin Division and all the cavalry to return from the left bank of the Dvina on the right bank.

The order of battle was thus decided:  the right was made up of the 6th Corps and the Corbineau Light Cavalry Brigade; Deroy’s division (the 19th) was to, at the agreed time, cross the Polota on the bridge, cross the village of Spas, head the column to the right, form a line in sections to the left in front of Spas, in a sort of small deep ravine the height of a man; at the same time, the count of Wrede, with his division (the 20th), passed the Polota to the right of General Deroy and gradually formed into battle, always to the right of General Deroy.

General Le Grand, with his division, coming up from the centre by the windings and ravines of the Polota which hid the movements, also came in passing at Spas to form on the left of Deroy; a brigade from Valentin’s division, formerly Verdier, followed General Le Grand’s movement and was to be deployed to his left.

The centre was to be occupied by a battery of 12 pieces, led by General Aubry himself; 12 other pieces were to be on the main road to Nevel, these pieces were to be supported by the cuirassier division; this division, in the centre, with its 1,400 to 1,500 cuirassiers, and being able at the same glance to cover all the ground, had to go where it would be necessary.

A brigade of Valentin’s division was on the way to Beloye; the Croats, supported by the Castex Light Cavalry Brigade, were to debouch on the left with 24 pieces against the Russians’ right.

A reserve of 4 Swiss battalions, commanded by General Candras, was placed in front of the centre of Polotsk, behind the Polota, to cover the city in case of need and to serve as a reserve.

At 5 o’clock, everything being ready, the signal was given; the Russian army was perfectly quiet; they thought that the movements which were carried out were occasioned to raise the posts.  General Wittgenstein having come himself to observe for a while, had returned to the castle occupied by the watching General Wrede and had begun to take tea, when the 60 Bavarian pieces, the 24 of General Aubry, started an infernal fire on this castle, the Russian lines and columns.  We saw a great disorder at the first moment; the Russians were in such great security that they were making their soup; however, having recovered from the first astonishment, they moved forward under the protection of 80 guns which soon responded to the French batteries.  General Wrede having crossed the Polota, on the extreme right, with his 14 battalions, deployed in front, on the right of General Deroy, marched to the enemy, broking his line.

General Deroy, who had been the first formed in line and was awaiting General Wrede, had sustained the fire of the Russian artillery with admirable coolness; as he marched forward with his division, he was mortally wounded:  this event caused a bit of disorder in the left of the 19th Division; this disorder was in an instant repaired by the brigade of Stroehl, which, being in reserve, marched into line.  General Le Grand debouched with the small remnants of his division and, obliged to march under enemy artillery fire, lost a great deal; General Le Grand found himself almost alone in the plain to the left of the Bavarians who, continuing their movement and conversing a little to the left, drove back the Russians in front of them:  they took 14 large caliber pieces.  A brigade of the Valentin Division also had to suffer greatly to deploy under fire to General Le Grand’s left.  All the regiments that did not do their duty lost more by hesitating to march forward on the enemy pieces.

The Russian left was in full retreat and in disorder; the center of the French was stripped for a moment, without a single corps but the weak Corbineau Brigade.  The cuirassier division had gone too far to the left to follow the enemy on the road to Bieloé, and to support the Croats and the Castex Brigade.  At least a regiment of cuirassiers had to be left in the center.  A column of Russian cavalry[6] took advantage of this movement, attacked the Corbineau Brigade at full gallop, drove it out on a French battery of 12:  a large part of the gunners were sabered, they even took 2 pieces.  The evil would have been greater if General Berckheim had not taken the Russian cavalry in flank with the 4th Cuirassiers and had not made it let go.  An aide-de-camp of General Saint-Cyr had happily been looking for General Berckheim with the 4th Cuirassiers.

General Saint-Cyr was almost taken, having been knocked down from his britzka where his wound the day before forced him to stay.

On the left, the Croats behaved very well and made the Russians fall back.  A few squadrons of the 7th and 14th Cuirassiers charged the Russian cavalry on the right wing.

The Swiss reserve crossed the Polota and moved forward between the roads to Beloye and Nevel; the Russians, in the greatest disorder, withdrew into the woods and were reformed in the plain of Beloye.  If one had been able to pursue them, this army would have been exterminated; they retired by a single path into the woods five great leagues wide; but the troops of the 2nd and 6th Corps were so exhausted by hunger and the marches and countermarches that it was impossible to make them go further.

The next morning, we saw the enormous losses that the enemy had taken; they could amount to 10,000 men.  The French army had lost at least 4,000 men; it was so in disorder the next day, the 19th, that on a false advice that we were going to be attacked again, we could only collect the remains of battalions; we would certainly not have had 10,000 men under arms; on entering the campaign, the 2nd Corps numbered 42,000 men, the 6th 30,000.

General Saint-Cyr, who on the morning of the 18th had about 20,000 men, sought to unite all his forces on a single point, the enemy’s left, to crush him and then march on the center.  The Count of Wittgenstein had 40,000 men and a formidable artillery.  If the general of the cuirassier division had properly seconded and understood the movements, the consequences of this battle would have been greater:  the movement of disorder which the charge in the center caused wasted time; night came and there was still disorder; it was necessary to save the little time which remained and one ignored the horrible confusion of the Russian army:  this one was all the night of the 18th to the 19th jumbled up in the woods, there were not twenty men of a regiment together.  On the 20th, it rallied in the plain of Beloye; on the 21st it built two large redoubts at Beloye itself, which was 500 paces from the outlet of the wood on the Polotsk side.

On the 22nd, the French army having recovered a little, in order, General Saint-Cyr ordered the Count von Wrede to go to Beloye; General Wrede left a brigade at Ghemselvo to observe the road to Losowka and that which goes to Nevel; with another brigade he marched on Beloye; at the end of the woods, the Russians were attacked; these fell back on their redoubts.  General Sibein, Bavarian, had the head of the column and was mortally wounded; Colonel Gédoni also; the Count von Wrede himself marched on the batteries, after having had his troops deployed and formed a reserve; the fight lasted an hour, very fierce; the Bavarians fought against quadruple forces, however they carried the village of Beloye and settled there coolly, in sight of two large Russian divisions which occupied the heights.  The Bavarians lost about 300 men, the Russians a little more.

On the 24th, General Saint-Cyr could not push any further since the 2nd Corps was almost reduced to nothing and found the position of the Count von Wrede too hazardous, having moreover in the woods no means of living gave order to the Count von Wrede to fall back; the outposts were established at Ghemselvo, at the crossroads of the Losowka, Nevel and Beloye roads.  Ghemselvo is two leagues from Beloye, two and a half or three from Polotsk. The rest of the Bavarian corps was established a league behind Ghemselvo, at the Chapelle post, behind at the pond; the left was guarded by a few pickets of light cavalry mixed with infantry, extending as far as the Dvina.  The Swiss were encamped behind the 6th Corps, in front of Polotsk; the Croats too, in front of Polotsk, leaning on the Dvina. The remainder of Le Grand’s division occupied part of the village of Spas and the Polota bank, obstructing the road to Nevel.  Verdier’s division, then commanded by General Maison who had relieved General Verdier who had returned to France, camped to the right of Le Grand’s division, in the plain, between the left bank of the Polota and the right bank of the Dvina.

From 22 August until 15 October we peacefully remained in the same positions; the Bavarians came to encamp the first days of September in front of Polotsk, behind the Swiss; the posts of Ghemselvo and of the Chapelle were raised alternately by each division.  The cavalry was sent to the right of Polotsk in the direction of Vitebsk, 2 and 3 leagues away, in order to be able to support the horses; a certain area of ​​country was distributed to each division; food was sent there and the troops began to have at least part of their rations regularly;[7] the climate of Polotsk was so unhealthy that the Russian garrison was, in peacetime, withdrawn from it every year, from the heat to the frosts; a lot of stagnant water in the streets added to the infections.  Dysentery and nervous fever made Polotsk a large hospital, where 200 to 300 men per day died; the Bavarians especially, accustomed to flour and who ate so much beef without vegetables, perished in a frightful manner.[8]  The 2nd Corps was recovering, on the contrary; some sick returned, some reinforcements arrived from Vilna on 15 October brought it to 14,000 infantry and about 2,000 horses.

From 22 August to 15 October, there were some skirmishes of outposts, some detachments removed; the Cossacks did this “little war” much better.  Colonel Lebrun with the 3rd Lancers, 400 men strong was surprised at Vitno on 5 October, fared badly:  he lost a quarter of his regiment, which proves that it is always necessary to mix infantry in the outposts against the Russian light cavalry: ours is too young for this craft of tricks.

General Saint-Cyr, who had received the marshal’s baton after the battle of the 18th, was in no hurry to have Polotsk fortified:  he was reproached for it, but he had had the opinion that the corps of the Duke of Bellune, 30,000 strong, was to arrive the first days of October, and then it was supposed that they would march against the enemy to crush him and remain master of the country.  However, I believe he wasted precious time; having been informed that Marshal Duke of Bellune was moving on Smolensk, and finding himself left to his own forces 5 leagues from a Russian army which receiving reinforcements was to be brought up to 60,000 men, he then built a large redoubt for 16 pieces in front of Polotsk, at the junction of the paths of Nevel and Beloye, another at 400 toises on the left bank the village of Spas was also crenellated, benches established on the remains of the walls, redoubts built and even taking advantage of a cemetery in front of the Polota, between the great redoubt of the branch and the village of Spas, to place artillery and infantry; finally, the front of the plain where the divisions Maison and Le Grand were encamped was covered by two large redoubts which were not finished.  The castle of Stronia, five quarters of a league above Polotsk, was also fortified to give anxiety to the enemy, to prevent him from engaging in the plain between Stronia and Polotsk, a battery of 12 pieces in this castle, and a pontoon bridge to facilitate the passage of the Dvina.

On the left bank of the Dvina, below Polotsk, posts had been established which observed the Disna, where the Cossacks often forded the river, pushing parties as far as 15 leagues in the direction of Vilna, and interrupted the communications between Polotsk and Dunabourg where the Grandjean Division of Marshal Macdonald’s corps had been fortified; there was usually its headquarters.

For their part, the Russians, whose outposts were at Beloye, had their main camp at Swochisna; they had their main logistics in Valentoüi; they were waiting for the Finnish Division commanded by General Steingell or Stendhal; the volunteers from Petersburg and Nowogorod were also to join them.

On 20 September, the battle of Moskowa was celebrated at Polotsk with 100 shots of cannon; the next day, the same feast in the Russian camp of Swochisna for the same battle called by them Borodino.

On 14 October, Marshal Saint-Cyr was informed that Russian infantry appeared on the side of Disna; he sent General Maison with four battalions, a regiment of cuirassiers, artillery, some light cavalry to test the enemy and know his forces.

General Maison was attacked on the 16th, forced the enemy to deploy and recognized a corps of 15,000 to 20,000 men who immediately put in line 80 pieces; General Maison withdrew slowly, returned on the 17th to his camp under Polotsk.  All the foragers had been made to withdraw; the cavalry passed the Dvina again on the bridge built at Stronia.

On the same day, 17 October, towards evening, the whole line of outposts was attacked on the road to Nevel and Petersburg: a general battle was expected the next day.  Colonel Stroehl was sent with 600 Bavarians and some light cavalry towards Disna; 800 Bavarians were placed in Stronia Castle; 300 others in the large redoubt of 16 pieces commanded by General Beckers; this was all that remained of the 6th Corps, approximately 1,600 to 1,700 men.  The 2nd Corps, composed of three infantry divisions, had 14,000 men present.

We slept very peacefully the night of the 17th to the 18th.  At daybreak the Marshal mounted his horse and toured the line; everyone was at their post.  At 8 o’clock the attack began on the road to Beloye on the Swiss; they were ordered to fall back to its right of the Croats and on the same line, having two mounted batteries on their front.  Only one very bad road led from Beloye into the plain; it took the Russians two hours to deploy in the plain and make their arrangements.

At 9 o’clock, General Le Grand was attacked, his left in front of Spas, himself on the right bank of the Polota, half an hour later; at the same time, General Maison ordered his division to take up arms; the redoubt which covered its front was attacked, the road to Nevel was also filled with Russians: their whole line was formed, they had about 45,000 men, more than 140 pieces of cannon.

At 11 o’clock, the combat began on the right in a terrible manner, the redoubt of General Le Grand was taken and retaken several times; the intrepid general, with the coolness which characterizes him, always in the midst of his grenadiers, ended up maintaining himself there; General Maison fought on the right with his division in line, six to seven hours without ceasing; a squadron of chasseurs and one of the 14th Cuirassiers had been placed on his right: if all the cavalry had been on this right in the plain, at the outset we would have been able to crush the Russian division which debouched.  The squadron leader Cureli with 150 chasseurs, in a first charge, took 10 pieces of cannon and the Count Wittgenstein himself:  he was brought back by superior forces; the squadron of the 14th held up badly;[9] squadron leader Cureli only kept 3 carriages, his prisoners escaped him.  I believe it was a mistake not to have placed all the cavalry there.  I am well aware that they would object to me that it was necessary to keep it, because they feared that the enemy would arrive from behind us, on the other side of the Dvina:  but since all the posts were guarded at six and seven leagues above and below the Dvina, there was time to be warned and to make the cavalry cross this river.  We have two bridges in Polotsk.  General Maison’s right was twice broken:  he rallied it; the Marshal had this right supported by 12 large caliber guns which fired from two redoubts made in front of the right of the town; these redoubts had been linked by a line and hoists made up to the river.

The Russians wanted to try to carry the village of Spas and advanced on the great redoubt:  they were received in a terrible manner and were satisfied with a strong cannonade.  Marshal Saint-Cyr, in wishing to advance in front of the Maison Division, was wounded at the foot by a bullet; he was obliged to settle on the roof of a house, in the redoubt of pieces of 16 which dominated the whole plain, from where he gave his orders; having been soon seen, the Russians fired continually on this redoubt:  the marshal remained there until evening.  At 5 o’clock the whole Russian right started to move against our left.  The Swiss had been given to fall back to the edge of the Polota ravine, to let the batteries play:  but the order was executed very slowly, so that they were forced to turn around to sustain a cavalry charge:  it was repulsed, but the volunteers from Petersburg and Nowogorod, drunk and screaming, threw themselves on the Swiss like furies; the latter received them with sustained fire and the greatest coolness; after a long half-hour of combat at fifty paces and even with bayonets, the Swiss having withdrawn, all the batteries were able to play:  they made a terrible massacre of the Russians who, quite simply, wanted to take the city by assault.  The Count von Wrede himself was in charge of the batteries.  The Croats having forgotten to burn their very solidly built camp, the Russians being sheltered from the grapeshot established themselves there so that they remained part of the night within pistol range of our left.

The fight ended all along the line at night; we had fought well, everyone needed a rest; but except to our left, which naturally defended itself, we had not lost an inch of ground, never did troops show themselves better.  General Le Grand had lost a lot, General Maison too; these two generals had fought all day against six-fold forces; there were 2,000 men left for General Le Grand, 2,500 or 3,000 for General Maison:  we had more than 4,500 men killed or hors de combat.[10]

The night of the 18th to the 19th was very calm; the troops, although bivouacked close to each other, did not fire a fusil; the marshals deliberated at night whether its right should not fall back on the city; the manner in which it had fought must have imposed on the enemy; it was agreed that they would not fall back until they attempted a serious attack.

The morning of the 19th was peaceful.  A glance embraced the whole plain from the neck of Polotsk and saw the two armies in presence at half cannon shot, each having its fires and making its soup.  At 2 o’clock, we heard that the Bavarian Colonel Stroehl[11] was attacked from the side of the Disna; at first it was believed that he was only dealing with light troops, his reports seemed exaggerated; hearing the sound of the cannon approaching from behind us finally convinced us that it was time to take a side.  At 3 o’clock, Marshal Saint-Cyr had a small division of about 2,000 infantry formed with seven battalions of the division which were either in the ravine or in the town, so that the enemy could not see any movement; the ravine of the Polota hid it very well, and, unanimously, all the division generals assembled at the Marshal’s asked the Count von Wrede to take over the command of this new division; at that moment he had just rendered a great service, for the enemy was beginning to emerge from the woods on the left bank of the Dvina, from behind Polotsk, where there was no defense:  consequently, we were caught between two fires; the Count von Wrede rallied some Bavarians, and, with some French troops, drove back the enemy half a league into the woods.  It was really one of the critical moments we could find ourselves, a corps of 10,000 to 12,000 men vis-à-vis an army of 45,000 men turned by a corps of 18,000 men on the banks of the Dvina.  The Marshal retained an imperturbable coolness which impressed everyone.  However, if General Steingell had done his job, we were taken; neither could it be understood why Count Wittgenstein, did not attack all along his line at the same time:  apparently, disgusted with the battles of the day before, he intended to make us surrender without firing a shot.

Towards 6 o’clock in the evening, fire broke out in General Le Grand’s camp, through a misunderstanding:  this camp was not to be set on fire except in the event that the enemy made a serious attack; this mistake cost us dearly. The village of Spas was evacuated; the artillery fell back on the great redoubt in the center; General Maison also set fire to his camp according to the order he had to follow the movement of his left; the troops of Generals Le Grand and Maison began to fall back on the city.  The Russians then believed that we were going to escape them, their whole line advanced, their batteries began to play; shells, hollow cannon balls filled with inflammable materials crushed the city.  The Marshal gave the order, night having come, to bring out the artillery from the redoubts and to the troops to hold in their respective positions until the order to withdraw was given to them; it was necessary to give time to 140 pieces of artillery which we had to cross the Dvina again, whose edges are very steep.

The town had been set on fire in five or six places; one could see there as in broad daylight; the assault began at 9 o’clock in the evening: the drunken Russians rushed on our troops:  the latter, completely on an empty stomach, received them at point blank range.  All of our right had fallen back on the stockade where the Russians were coming to be killed.  It was impossible to see a more beautiful spectacle.

At half past one, the troops of Generals Le Grand and Maison began to cross; the Swiss, finding themselves a little pushed into the main square, carried their bayonets forward, returning the great bridge of the Polota:  there was horrible carnage there; they set the bridge on fire and slowly returned to the main square.  General Merle commanded the retreat.  At 2 o’clock the main square was evacuated, after successively having the posts fold up. The town was barricaded, so that one could withdraw at the same time by the only two streets leading to the two bridges.  We faced the enemy every ten paces; there was no disorder at the time; all that was heard was the sound of cannon, shells, the command:  “Charge! Fire! About turn!, etc …”

At half past two, the last Swiss troops passed over the bridges; a few pieces of cannon placed on the left bank held the Russians with the grapeshot.  General Aubrey broke the two bridges; the rest of the night was peaceful.[12]

General Steingell had not budged from our left; he was half a league away in the woods of the division commanded by Wrede; this general had sent General Amey the day before with two battalions, a regiment of mounted chasseurs, a few pieces, for Rondnia:  this movement was to cut off the retreat of General Steinhal who had buried himself in woods two and a half leagues deep:  he had to be taken from behind, for nothing prevented General Amey from moving from Rondnia to General Steingell.  At 6:30 in the morning, General Wrede having set himself in motion in the wood, in column (there was only the main road), encountered the Russian column; General Grundler, who had the lead with the 19th and 37th, threw voltigeurs to the right and left, the 19th attacked with the bayonet; the charge lasted two leagues and until the end of the woods we took 2,000 to 3,000 men, it is one of the best possible feats of arms; the Russian cavalry galloped back to form in the plain, opposite the wood, and put their artillery in line; if at this moment General Amey, who had only a league and a half to travel from Rondnia, had appeared, all the Russian artillery and the infantry would be taken; but he did not appear in the plain, was received by the fire of 20 Russian; pieces, however he formed his columns, lost some people, made advance the 7th Cuirassiers and 12 Bavarian pieces of 12; he engaged in a very strong cannonade, the Russians recrossed the Oschatz; their infantry had their outposts three-quarters of a league from Oschatz, where the Marshal had ordered Count von Wrede to stop; at night, this enemy cavalry retreated to Disna.  The Count von Wrede wanted to go as far as Disna at the first moment; he would have broken the bridge and perhaps taken a large part of the artillery; but prudence commanded Marshal Saint-Cyr not to remove too far the little strength which remained to him.  Colonel Stroehl, with 600 Bavarians, had followed, while descending the left bank of the Dvina, the movement of the Count of Wrede, and came to take up position at the mouth of the Oschatz in the Dvina. The line of the Count of Wrede was established on this river, his outposts half a league in front of the Oschatz, his headquarters was at Bononia.

This action did the greatest honor to this general, to the vigor of the French troops;[13] it was not very honorable for General Steinhal:  with a corps of 18,000 men, he was beaten and dispersed by a corps of 3,000 men, he lost 3,000 prisoners, had 1,200 to 1,500 men killed almost all with bayonets.

The rest of the day on the 20th was quiet.  In the evening, General Laurencez, Chief of the General Staff [14], ordered that the next day the 21st all the troops would rejoin their corps; it was executed:  the Bavarians who were above Polotsk at the castle of Stronia evacuated it after having broken the pontoon bridge and descended, in the sight of the enemy, by the left bank; the French corps which had fought with the Count von Wrede evacuated at the same time; all this movement was carried out above little Polotsk in sight of the enemy; the latter began to use his artillery on all these troops; the order was given to the different divisions to withdraw in three columns to Oschatz: generals Le Grand and Maison formed the right column; General Merle was withdrawing through Voronetsch; Count Wrede had to take the same direction, but to avoid congestion on the same road he moved on Arekowka, a bold move — because he opened his flank for a whole march of 7 leagues, but which was more military — because it covered the left; he had with him 1,500 Bavarians, the 7th Cuirassiers and the Corbineau Light Brigade.

Allow me to say that the movement ordered by the Chief of the General Staff did not have common sense; the Marshal was in pain, needed to rest, he left the command with General Laurencez and was in Kamen; he left on the morning of the 21st.  General Le Grand took command as far as Oschatz, where the strong contusion he had received forced him to hand over the command to General Merle; they arrived at Oschatz on the 24th.  Count von Wrede marched on Babinitschi, where he had an affair; the brave colonel Saint-Chaman, of the 7th Chasseurs, was wounded there with a lance.

The order was given by General Merle to the 2nd Corps to move on Kamen where the right was to be established, the left was to be at Lepel.  Le Grand’s division arrived at Kamen on the 26th; the Maison Division having the center at Proudock, the left leaning against the pond of Lepel; Merle’s division was established in Lepel.  If one was attacked by superior forces, one had to withdraw from all points directly on Tchatkniki on the Oula, to await the Duke of Bellune who arrived from Smolensk with 25,000 men.

General Maison having recognized on the 27th that the enemy was master of the junction of the roads to Lepel and Kamen, attacked it in front of Proudock and remained master of the position; Colonel Lebrun was killed with his regiment (3rd Lancers), in a fine charge.

General Wrede, wishing to go to Oschatz from Babinitschi, learned that the bridge had been cut; we were in a bit of a hurry; his battery of 12 which was falling back having found the same obstacle was taken, with a caisson containing all the flags of the Bavarian army;[15] von Wrede furious, marched on Pouïchnia where he arrived on the 27th.  Marshal Saint-Cyr ordered him to move to the left of General Merle, whose movements he would follow.  The Count von Wrede saw the 7th Cuirassiers in the 2nd Corps again but kept the Corbineau Light Brigade, and with 1,200 Bavarians who remained to him he moved on Danilowitschi to cover the road to Vilna; he disobeyed, it is true, the orders of the Marshal, but he rendered great services; having been reinforced by the marching troops sent from Vilna, it helped to maintain the enemy, then retained Velaïka’s position when the Grand Army arrived at Malotetchino and made the last rearguard in retreat to Vilna.

So it is wrong to write that the Bavarians had been cut off from the 2nd Corps; it was very voluntarily that the Count von Wrede turned to Danilowitschi; his battery of 12 and the Bavarian flags were taken because the bridge of Oschatz had been broken too early.

The way in which these remnants of the army withdrew before the Russian corps of Wittgenstein proves the respect one had for them:  each division was about 2,000 men, and the Russians never attacked until after deploying 12 and 15 battalions.

On the 30th, Marshals Saint-Cyr and Victor saw each other two hours at the chateau of Tachaschnicki; the Duke of Bellune, Victor, took command of the two corps, the 2nd and the 9th.  On the 30th, the 2nd Corps fell back on the Oula, as had been agreed, retaining the Reichekowo bridge.

(Sketch by General d’Albingac)

On the 31st, the Duke of Bellune missed at Smoliani a fine opportunity; he could attack with advantage a corps of 6,000 Russians which had engaged imprudently on the right bank of the Oula; he contented himself with a bad cannonade in which he lost many people, and retired to Siena; from there he marched to Tchereia; he lost half of his army in marches and counter-marches, until the arrival of the Emperor on the Berezina; he would have lost half as much in attacking the corps of Count Wittgenstein, who had only 15,000 to 20,000 men before him.  Count Wittgenstein might have had, with the Finnish division, when he attacked Polotsk, 60,000 men; he lost 15.00 to 20,000, so he had 40,000 left; he made two detachments, one to watch Marshal Macdonald at Dunabourg, the other to take General Pouget from Vitebsk; if the Duke of Bellune had beaten the Count of Wittgenstein, –he could, since he had more than 30,000 men under his orders and more than 200 pieces of cannon, –recovered without obstacle in Polotsk and surroundings, communicated with Dunabourg ;[16]  With regard to Dunabourg, is it not extraordinary that Marshal Macdonald, who saw him pass under his breath, did not even give Polotsk a single opinion?  It is a further proof of the hatred which MM. the marshals carried.

If the Emperor had left a general-in-chief to command from Vitebsk to Riga, as the Duke of Bellune with his 9th Corps had been forced to obey this supreme chief, it is more than probable not only that Riga would have been taken, but nothing would have prevented him from marching on Petersburg, these corps forming the left of the Grand Army.[17]

[1] D’ALBIGNAC (Maurice-François de Castelnau, count), born at the Château du Triadou (Lozère) in 1775; page of Louis XVI, emigrated in 1791, served in the Army of the Princes in the noble companies, in the regiment of Choiseul, in the hussars of Salm-Kirburg.  Returned to France at peace, enlisted in 1806 in the corps of orderly gendarmes and was made house marshal there during the Tilsit Campaign.  Passed lieutenant in the 5th Cuirassiers in 1807, he took service the same year as aide-de-camp to Jérôme, King of Westphalia, who made him lieutenant-colonel, colonel, brigadier general, grand-squire, minister of war and who appointed him Count de Ried; employed in 1809 against the corps of supporters of Schill, quarreled with Jérôme and left him in 1810.  Colonel with French title in 1812, he was taken as chief of staff by Gouvion Saint-Cyr, commander of the Bavarian Corps of the Grand Army.  Charged at the end of 1813 in the Gard Department to organize the 4th Reserve Division, he remained on half pay at the first Restoration, rejoined Marshal Saint-Cyr on the return from the Isle of Elba and retrieve Louis XVIII from Ghent.  The second Restoration made him Secretary General of the Ministry of War, Field Marshal, Governor of the Saint-Cyr Military School (from 1815 to 1821) and Lieutenant General (1822).  He died in Montpellier in 1824.

[2] Several affairs took place in front of the Dvina; I’m glad I don’t have to bring them to mind.

[3] These six regiments had been swallowed up in the cavalry commanded by King Naples.

[4] The 4th Regiment of Cuirassiers made a good charge.

[5] This position was the main one to occupy, to put it better, it decided everything.

[6] Commanded by Prince Repnin.

[7] From that moment, freed from the voracity and uselessness of administrations, the army finally began to have bread, to make soup, and received distributions of brandy.

[8] Their morale was hit; the officers themselves, very brave in the fight, murmured loudly against a war quite foreign to their interests.  The depopulation (sic) was such that on 14 October there were no more than 1,200 to 1,500 Bavarians under arms.

[9] The commander of these cuirassiers hesitated, charged badly and gained nothing, because he was wounded and taken prisoner.

[10] During that day there were fine bayonet charges; never was infantry more worthy of being French.

[11] He had 500 men, remnants of the 5th and 11th Regiments, of the 5th Light Battalion and a half-battery; he lost in this fight:  40 officers and 336 men killed, wounded or missing.

[12] Without the corps from Finland, which arrived to take us on our backs, we can assume that Polotsk would not have been evacuated; we have seen from the details that even after having removed the artillery from the redoubts, all the assaults were repulsed:  if this artillery had been in position, the Russians would have been crushed.

[13] And the Bavarian artillery.

[14] Chief of Staff of Marshal Oudinot.

[15] 22 flags.

[16] Fortune offered the Duke of Bellune one of those unique occasions where one can acquire immortal glory.  The fate of the French army in Russia was in his hands.  But few men are fit to play such a great part, to strike with those blows which shake or save empires.  What a distance between a timid major general and a general-in-chief whose talent embraces everything and dares to undertake everything!

[17] I end here those simple observations that I have heard so often, even from the mouths of the youngest officers.