WHILE our weak body of
foreigners was assembling, the authorities of Tilsit, frightened and
alarmed for the safety of their town, came to implore me to preserve it.
They thought we were going to set alight to it out of revenge for the
defection. I sent them back reassured, and we started in good order. The
enemy's scouts pursued us; I had no cavalry now to keep them at a
distance, and they were not worth powder and shot.
Russian and the other Prussian —were brought, by mistake, to me in the
midst of my column. The latter summoned me insolently to lay down my
arms; I treated him with scorn, and dismissed him. I did not know until
after the former had left me that he was a Frenchman, formerly
aide-de-camp to General Moreau, and by name Rapatel. I did not recognise
him; but, more prudent than his comrade, he asked me to come to an
arrangement with his General, Prince Repnine, who proposed a suspension
of arms until the peace, which he said was imminent, was concluded, and
to give him an interview in the meantime.
The trap was too clumsily
set to catch me. I told him that a suspension of arms could be brought
about without a convention; that he could easily see that I was only
marching in order to retire, and that they could very well stop
following if they thought fit to do so; that, as to the interview, as I
had no reason for refusing it, I would meet his Prince at a certain spot
at a given hour the next day, but that after that hour he need not
trouble himself. He left, and I continued my march towards the forest.
We marched for twenty-two hours in rain,
through water, and in pitchy darkness; many of my men fell out, wearied,
but rejoined us next day. At length, at six in the morning, we reached
this dense forest. I had caused the entrance to it to be guarded by the
troops. who, before and while I was waiting at Tilsit for the
rear-guard, had escorted our baggage to Labiau.
The aide-de-camp who had accompanied the
parlementaire, and who was to bring back the answer to my proposal, had
not returned. The hour fixed for the interview struck; no sign of Prince
Repnine. However, we thought we saw him riding up; but it was only an
officer commissioned to apologize for the unpunctuality of his Qeneral.
The Prince, who had chanced to be away when my aide-dc-camp came, asked
for a delay of an hour or two.
'I quite understand,' I answered, 'that the
Prince may have business to see to; but so have I. Present my
compliments to him, and express to him my regrets at missing this
opportunity of making his personal acquaintance; he will esteem me the
more for it. His ruse is too simple.' I added:
Does he really suppose that I am to be taken
in by such groundless, not to say absurd, pretexts? Return, and send me
back my aide-de-camp.'
As he wished to protest that his General was
acting in good faith, I made him remount his horse. Scarcely had he gone
a few yards, when the cannon became audible. I called him back, and
'What is the
meaning of that? Is it thus that your General exhibits his honesty? You
deserve that I should retain you as a hostage, but I will give your
Prince a lesson in good faith. Return to him, and say that henceforward
any communications between him and me must be carried on by
firing ceased at the outposts; our Commandant told me that he was under
arms, when the enemy, meaning to drive him back, charged him. He had
received and repulsed them with bayonets, and they had retired. My
aide-dc-camp, who was with the Prince, begged to be sent back, observing
that he was horribly afraid of French bullets.
'Go,' replied the Prince. 'I have ordered
the firing to cease, and my troops to retire. I meant to surprise your
General, but he has been sharper than I.'
We reached Labiau, where I found orders to
go straight to Königsberg, o confer with the King of Naples.
I left the command to General Grandjean, who
had General Bachelu under him; during my absence they had a very Shari)
skirmish at Labiau. On the road I met counter-orders. The King,
compelled, he said, to go to Elbing, and being unable to see me, begged
me to send him a plan of operations, and my opinion upon what we ought
to do in our present position.
I had no hesitation in recommending what I
should have ordered myself had I been Commander-in-chief----the
evacuation of all places in Poland, the kingdom of Prussia, and on the
Vistula, to concentrate upon the Oder with the troops arriving from
Italy, and to await the fresh levies that were being made in France.
[The whole character of the campaign of 1813 would have been changed had
this far-seeing step been taken. The invested fortresses may have
detained a certain portion of the enemy's troops until their surrender,
but they also locked up a large body of veteran French troops.]
My division came up with me, and I took
under my direction that of General Heudelet, composed of freshly joined
reached Königshcrg, where I found Marshal Ney alone. He had committed
the mistake of evacuating the town at the first manifestation of an
insurrection, which might have broken out at sight of the enemy, who
were close behind us. I suggested to the Marshal to come away from it
immediately with me; some hours later he required all his courage to
carry him through several threatening groups. I had returned to my
troops, occupied partly in keeping off the enemy, and partly in
obtaining provisions, and it was to them that Marshal Ney owed his
nightfall I continued my retreat towards Elbing. The King of Naples sent
me orders not only to stop, but to return to Königsberg. I caused
representations to be made to him concerning the obstacles in the way.,
warning him that the enemy had already advanced by another road upon
Preussich-Eylau, and that he himself would be immediately surrounded, or
that his communications would be cut off. He reiterated his orders,
adding that 1 was misinformed, that he had numerous spies about the
country, and that the enemy could not move a step without his being
informed of it.
Judging better than he, I took no notice of his orders, and continued my
retrograde movement, which made Murat furious. He soon changed his tone,
however. The advance of the enemy upon his right flank and rear being
confirmed, he applauded my foresight, and summoned me post-haste to
Elbing to confer with him. I had kept along the Passarge as far as I
could consistently with prudence.
I arrived during the morning, and found the
King ready to mount his horse, and very impatient to get away. I pointed
out to him that, as my troops could not arrive before the evening, his
sudden withdrawal would be the signal for an insurrection, and for the
pillaging of the magazines, the preservation of which was so necessary
to my men. My representations were in vain, and his resolution was
strengthened by the noise of cannon from my rear-guard, who were
fighting as they retreated. He desired me to remain a few days at Elbing,
and then to throw myself immediately into Dantzic, of which I was to
take the command. I showed him the impossibility of holding Elbing with
so few troops, that we were almost outflanked as it was, and that even
next morning it would be too late to leave it. As to remaining in
1)antzic, I observed that there was already a specially commissioned
Governor in the town,* and that he would quite rightly refuse to yield
his command to inc. Thereupon he told me to send all my troops thither,
and to go myself to his headquarters, the position of which was as yet
undecided. I asked him if he had not carried out at least a portion of
the plan I had submitted to him.
'No,' he replied; 'I have forwarded it to
the Emperor, whose orders I shall receive in three days at latest.'
'What!' I exclaimed, 'you have forwarded it?
It was sent to you in confidence. The Emperor, who probably is in
complete ignorance as to all that has taken place, and is still
occurring, will he furious, and rightly, too, if this plan has not been
limited myself to asking for his orders,' he answered coldly.
'And where shall we be in three days?' I
ought to have been on the spot, and even then I should have doubted his
determination, and yet the adoption of my plan was the only reasonable
course. These garrisons, which were thus to be left to themselves,
without appearance, and, I may add, without hope of speedy succour, were
bound, with the exception of Dantzic, to fall for want of provisions,
and by their own weakness. It was already too late for Pillau and the
places in Poland, but not for Dantzic.
The Prussian Government appeared to
ostensibly disavow the defection of its troops; I would have entrusted
to it the care of this place, not because I had any faith in its honour,
but in order to occupy a portion of its forces, which would have
diminished the number of our enemies, by giving it an interest in
keeping this important place from the greed of Russia. I demonstrated
that by this means we could unite on the Oder all our fighting troops;
that is to say, about 60,000 or 70,000 men. The Russians had also
suffered severely. The Prussians would need time for organization, and
by taking up that position we should hold in check the greater portion
of that monarchy. We could thus wait in safety the levy of 300,000 men
that was being made in France.
Nothing could he urged against this
reasoning, and Murat therefore did not attempt any answer. He was
entirely occupied with his retreat, and his return to Naples, which he
effected immediately, without any notification to the Emperor. He made
over his command to Prince Eugene; it was a pity, both for it and for
himself, that the Emperor did not give it to the Prince in the first
place when he left the army.
Knowing the indifference of the King of
Naples, of which he had just given me fresh proof in sending to Paris
the plan I had prepared for him in confidence, and in announcing that he
would within three days receive orders which he would not be able to
execute even in part, I required of him, before we separated, that he
should give me written instructions. He at first made difficulties,
which proved his impatience to start, but at length gave way, and they
were taken down by Count Daru, who was present at the interview. He then
mounted his horse, and started amid the shouts of the populace, which
were called forth rather by his extraordinary costume than by his
been given to all the troops in Elbing to follow him, but I retained a
regiment of infantry to protect the magazines until the arrival of my
own men; this, how- ever did not prevent a large portion of them being
pillaged. I gave my soldiers some hours' rest that night, and then we
continued our retreat. We had great difficulty in crossing the Vistula
on the ice, and in scaling the steep declivities of the left bank. The
courage of my troops redoubled as we neared Dantzic, which was regarded
as the goal of salvation, and the end of fatigues, privations, and
leaving Courland we had fought every day and marched every night. This
had weakened us, but we were now within a few days' march of our
long-desired haven. After the passage of the Vistula, a suggestion was
made to me to lay an ambuscade for the enemy. It succeeded perfectly,
and at length we took up our position around the walls of Dantzic.
I immediately resigned the command of my
troops to General Rapp, the Governor. I was grieved at parting from
them. Generals, commissioned and non-commissioned officers, and
privates, although they were all foreigners (with the exception of my
staff), and only our allies, had rivalled each other in their zeal,
devotion, courage, and efforts, during the long, painful, and dangerous
retreat we made during that disastrous winter from the banks of the
Dwina, with no rest save our forced halt at Tilsit. I received from all
thanks for having saved them from the perils which daily environed us;
their regret at our parting was not less than my own. I faithfully kept
the promise I had made. Officers and men received a present of a month's
pay, the superior officers and generals in proportion. The small French
division* did not share in it, as it had only been under my orders for a
very short time—since Königsberg; but, in justice to it, I am bound to
say that it behaved very well, although formed of only conscripts.
The next morning the enemy attacked part of
our lines. General Rapp had invited all the generals to a farewell
breakfast, and we were then at table. Each one hurried to his post; and
that evening I started, not knowing where the principal headquarters
took the road to Berlin; there I learned that they were at Posen. I
asked for orders, and did not have to wait long for the answer. I was
ordered to Paris to assist in the reorganization of some new army corps.
The day before my departure I was robbed at the inn of the sum of 12,000
francs (£480), destined for the expenses of my journey. My carriages had
rejoined me; I sent them into Westphalia, near Cassel, to rest my horses
during my absence. I felt real sorrow on learning that two very .pretty
Russian guns, of small calibre, that my troops had taken by assault from
a little fortified castle on the Dwina, and which they had presented to
me, had been left, by the carelessness of one of my aides-dc-camp, at
Dantzic in one of my baggage-waggons that needed some repairs I had
intended them to decorate Courcelles.
I reached Paris without adventure. I had
very little reason to be satisfied with the Emperor's reception of me.
He started on seeing me, and said not a word. No doubt he felt
resentment against me because of my proposal to abandon all that we held
beyond the Oder. He had also been deceived by untruthful accounts of my
treatment of the Prussian troops, which was said to have contributed to
their defection ; however, to convince himself of the contrary, he had
only to read the letters of Generals Yorck and Massenbach. I left his
presence indignant that all my efforts and devotion should have met with
so bad a reward, and went no more to Court.
A few days later, however, I was recalled.
News had just arrived that not only did the King of Prussia approve the
conduct of his troops, but that he had allied himself with Russia, and
that all his subjects were taking up arms against us.
Then the Emperor acknowledged to me that he
had been misled concerning me and the disingenuous policy of Prussia;
that I had acted wisely; that he had been incorrectly informed as to the
last disasters of Wilna and Kowno. He said that our misfortunes were
great, but not irreparable; that he and I had begun the war at the same
time, and must finish it together; that it would be the last campaign we
should undertake, and that I must get ready for it. He added that he put
implicit trust in his father-in-law, the Emperor of Austria.
'Beware!' I answered. 'Do not trust the
clever policy of that Cabinet.'
The auxiliary Austrian force had acted very
feebly during our disastrous campaign. With a little determination (or
without secret orders not to risk his troops) Prince Schwarzenherg, who
commanded them, and who unfortunately had under him General Reynier with
the Saxon contingent, might have held in check Tchitchakof's army, and
prevented it from harassing our rear at the Beresina.