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Recollections of Marshall Macdonald, Duke of Tarentum
Chapter XXII


DRESDEN, where the Emperor stayed, was the pivot for the army astride on the two banks of the Elbe; we remained on the defensive ; communications were intercepted with France, whence we had drawn no assistance since the fresh outbreak of hostilities. The Emperor one morning sent one of his orderly officers to inc to ask my opinion upon our situation, and what we had better do.

We were now in October—without rations, except such as could be collected by main force but the soldiers were allowed to dig for themselves as many potatoes as they could find in the fields where we encamped. I told the officer plainly that, unless the Emperor immediately took the offensive—that is, if he saw any chance of success, which, in my opinion, was improbable, as we had hitherto failed to force our entrance into Bohemia—he exposed us to serious catastrophes: the army was daily growing weaker by sickness and the ordinary losses of war that an unsuccessful battle would weaken us still further, and use up our ammunition, which we could not replace; that the magazines were empty, the country ruined; that, under these circumstances, the prudent course would he to retire immediately to the Saale, leaving a strong garrison in Leipsic, and to evacuate those places on the Oder with which we could still communicate, and, above all, those on the Elbe. The officer hesitated for a moment at the idea of having to carry such proposals.

'Go!' I said; 'the Emperor will realize their importance, and will be pleased with me for my outspokenness.'

He came back in a few hours to tell me that he had fulfilled his mission ; that the Emperor, being in his bath, had called him in, and, after hearing hini attentively, had made but one objection--namely, that the Saale was not a defensive position; that there was nothing but the Rhine; and that, since I thought retreat was necessary, we would go to the Rhine.

'Go and tell the Marshal that,' he added.

'Quite so,' I answered. 'The Saale was only provisional in my proposal; the defiles leading thither are difficult, and we can hold the enemy longer in check there than on the Elbe.'

He departed ; but scarcely had he left me, when another orderly officer came to bring me an order not to commence the preliminary execution of my plan, but to advance at once. My reconnaissances and forage parties were already out, anti I was consequently very much weakened in force. I told the officer to point out to the Emperor that I could not start until they had returned, and to add that, as I was compelled to send out for provisions, I begged him to give me his orders twenty-four hours in advance. It was not long before he returned, saying that the Emperor desired me to set out immediately with what troops I had, that the absentees would join me later, and that he himself would come with his Guard and his reserves.

I therefore started, leaving behind my heavy ordnance, as well as my baggage. A wood separated us from the enemy. At sight of us they fell back upon the heights of Bischofswerda. We left on our right a feeble line of their cavalry, from which we were .separated by a deep ravine which formed a prolonged circuit, and also covered the hill where I had left my siege guns. While I was attacking the heights of Bischofswerda, the Emperor came up to this artillery; he sent for me, and I found him helping to place it in position, and pushing with all his might to help the gunners.

'What are you going to fire at, Sire?' I asked him.

'At that line of cavalry down there in front of us.'

But it is out of range, your Majesty! I saw it as I came back! They are only scouts; and there is but one line of them!'

'Never mind,' he replied, and gave the word to fire.

We could not see where the shot fell, and the cavalry remained motionless; I could not understand his object. At the seventeenth shot he ordered, this useless fire to cease, remarking:

'It is costing us too much,'

The enemy were driven back from the heights, and we followed them. The Emperor called me aside, and said 'You were surprised at my firing?'

'Yes,' I answered, 'because that handful of cavalry was not worth powder and shot, besides being out of range.' It had, moreover, just retreated.

'You see,' continued the Emperor, 'that with every volley one hits something; it may be a man of mark. Look at Moreau !—he was killed by a spent shot at Dresden. Look at Duroc or Bessières!'

As a matter of fact, Moreau had both legs cut off by a shot which was far from spent.

The Emperor moved his headquarters to Harta, or Horta; he invited me to dinner, and, instead of talking of our circumstances, would think of nothing but a lawsuit, then in progress, against some former contractors. In answer to my request to have his opinion on the issue of the case, he replied, laughing, that the whole lot of them— plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses - deserved hanging. On quitting him, I asked for his orders; he answered that he must sleep on them, and would let me have them in the morning. He sent them ; and I was to march, because he wished to come up with the enemy and give battle.

I sent orders to my advance guard, on the other side of Bischofswerda, to march. An orderly officer from the Emperor accompanied me in order to report to him the position of the enemy, who were not far off. On the way, an aide-dc-camp came to warn me that they were in great force; the orderly officer wished to return immediately to inform the Emperor.

'No,' said I; 'follow me. We will reconnoitre for ourselves, and then you will be able to say to the Emperor, "I have seen."'

The enemy seemed to have a force of about 8o,000 men, and to be quite ready to receive us, or to cut us off. I told this to the Emperor, who replied that his object was gained, and that I was to profit by the darkness to return to the positions I had quitted on the previous day. He returned to Dresden. I was only disturbed by some demonstrations, but the day seemed very long, isolated as I was since the Emperor had left me; fortunately, the enemy had been advised of his arrival, but not of his departure.

Two days later he summoned me to Dresden. I told him that we could now see nothing of the enemy except some scouts; that they were preparing some movement, and perhaps manoeuvring to turn our flank.

'It cannot be to attack the entrenched camp on the right bank,' he replied; 'they are too timid to attack that.'

That evening when I returned, I heard that the enemy had suddenly disappeared entirely from in front of us, and were making for my left. Some prisoners were brought to me who confirmed the departure of their troops, which were, they said, going to Muhlberg, to cross the Elbe there. I sent them to the Emperor with my report.

That same night I received orders to abandon my position, and to come and occupy the entrenched camp, which other troops had hastily left and twenty-four hours later I was relieved in my turn, and told to go on to Wittenberg. The Emperor was anxious to cross the Elbe there ; and my advance guard had already started, when he received intelligence that the allies had quitted Bohemia, and were advancing towards Leipsic ; thereupon I received counter- orders to make for the Partha.

A portion of the allied forces was already in position at about two leagues from Leipsic. It was October i6; I well remember the date. We attacked with more vigour than unison, and one of my divisions carried a position known as the Swedish Redoubt at the point of the bayonet. It was necessary to support them. The cavalry came up sharply, and did very well; but the carabineers behaved very badly. With my own eyes I saw a squadron of the enemy outwit them at only ten sabres' length. Each side remained in much the same position at the end of the combat.

Next day, the 17th, although we were facing one another, within range, not a shot was fired—not even from a musket; but we could see the reinforcements taking their places in the enemy's ranks, and could distinctly hear the cheers of the soldiers. The night was equally tranquil. On either side everything was preparing for a bloody battle.

Early next morning, the i8th, the Emperor closed up his ranks; the enemy were already advancing to attack us. I had orders only to retire very slowly, which I did, but not without great losses, among others that of General Aubry, commanding the artillery belonging to my corps. At length I reached the lines. The cannonade was so violent, so multiplied, so extreme, that it might have been compared to a fire from two ranks of infantry, and very well maintained, moreover. I again lost a large number of my men, many of my artillery horses; one gun was dismounted, my ammunition was consumed. 1 ordered my infantry to shelter in ravines, and behind little risings in the ground. I thus remained inactive for several hours, while the battle continued with a violence equal to that with which it had begun, exposed to the fire of the enemy, to which I could not reply.

The army was then forming a crescent before Leipsic, of which one extremity was flanked by the Elster. I implored the Emperor to replace my artillery; he at length sent me a battery of the Guard, which arrived most conveniently, for the enemy, noticing that from this point they obtained no answer to their fire, concluded that they had silenced mine, and as they could see no troops, they thought they might establish themselves upon the raised point that I occupied. I soon undeceived them. As they boldly advanced, my troops suddenly showed themselves, protected by the batteries that had come to me; they retired, and their firing recommenced, but less violently than before; either they were economizing their ammunition, or else some of their guns had been dismounted too.

I was walking about with Colonel Bongars, and we deplored the great number of victims stretched at our feet; preoccupied solely with what was going on under our eyes, and with the melancholy issue that I foresaw, I regretted that the cannon spared me while striking down so many brave men. While we were talking over these sad circumstances, I saw the enemy retreat on my left, and the corps of General Reynier, drawn up in two lines, advance. The leading line was composed of Saxons, the rear of French. I gave orders to advance to their support, when what was my horror at seeing the front rank stop at the point the enemy had just quitted, and, turning round, fire straight at the French behind them.

Never was such treachery known in history. In the preceding year, when the Prussians deserted, at least they had the decency not to turn and fire upon us at the moment. Amazed, surprised, the second line fled, and was immediately pursued by the front line, which an instant before had been fighting under our banner. That there had been connivance was clear from the fact that the enemy supported this movement, and it would have been decisive for them had not the Emperor himself hastened to the spot to stop them and rally the line.

It was growing late, and the firing slackened on either side, and finally ceased altogether. Everyone kept his own position—at least, on the side where I had been all day— but our left had been pushed back nearer to Leipsic. We passed the night in the utmost watchfulness, foreseeing a too tardy retreat, but in nowise prepared for the terrible nature of the next day's catastrophe.

An officer was sent from headquarters to bring me orders to retire to the suburb of Leipsic at the end of the highroad to Dresden; but he lost his way, and only arrived at seven in the morning. A thick fog fortunately obscured our position, and we were able, therefore, to fall back unperceived. The other army corps had done the same thing, and we thus formed a fresh line. As the parks of artillery could not be moved, they were blown up; nothing could have been devised more likely to put the enemy on the alert and announce a decided retreat, and they were not slow to profit by the signal, advancing to the heights which commanded my position.

The gardens of the suburb were enclosed by earthbanks, which might serve as a slight bulwark against infantry and cavalry, but were useless against cannon. We had barricaded all the issues, crenellated the walls, but that served us very little against a heavy cannonade, which dealt frightful execution in the houses and among the troops. The enemy advanced in close columns; we stopped them for a moment. The fire was very hot, when General Girardin, at that time aide-de-camp to the Prince of Neuchâtel, brought me orders to immediately send a division to the extreme right to the assistance of Marshal Augereau.

'See for yourself,' I answered, 'whether I can spare any troops; I rather stand in need of reinforcements myself. Go and tell the Emperor so.'

'I have executed my mission,' said he; 'you must do as you please;' and he left me.

I had not even troops enough to keep my front in every direction, but I reflected that if Marshal Augereau's corps, and consequently the intervening regiments between him and me, were forced, I, who held the outside wing, would be outflanked and cut off, and I consequently determined to send, not a division, but a brigade of the Hessian division.

During this time, although we were defending the ground inch by inch, and the suburb had been taken and retaken several times, we were pushed right back to the boulevard of the town. I was then informed that the Hessian brigade was on its way back, having found neither friends nor foes at the point to which they were ordered, and this caused me great surprise. As I was pressed in front, I desired Marshal Poniatowski to attempt a final charge with the small body of cavalry remaining to us, while the infantry fell back to the bridge in order to cross the Elster.

The Hessian division had in the meantime entered the town, and I presumed it was by orders of General Marchand, who was in command. But instead of marching to the Elster by the broad Street that leads to the bridge, the division went up to the ramparts, and opened fire upon us. This fresh treachery effectually discouraged our troops. They retreated in wild confusion, notwithstanding my efforts to maintain order, and swept me with them. To complete our misfortunes, I learned that the bridge, our only means of communication, had been blown up.

This appalling news, which we vainly strove to conceal, spread universal consternation; upon every face horror, fury, despair, were painted, and I was not the least excited among them. Neither before, during, or since the battle, had any precaution been taken to secure the Elster or the road to Lindenau—albeit, it would have been easy to find many places at which men of different aims and of different corps could have crossed, owing to the narrowness of the river. Neither had any troop. been posted on the left bank to protect the retreat on the chance of the bridge remaining intact, or of others being established. The principal headquarters and the Emperor himself were at Markranstadt. I do not yet know by what name to call this criminal indifference whether incapability, cowardice, or absence of all feeling, of all regret at the sacrifice of so many lives.

The bridge had been blown up several hours previously, but the noise of the cannon, of the fusillade, and of the ammunition waggons that were being exploded, had prevented us from hearing the noise. An attempt was made to lay at the door of a superior engineer officer the responsibility for this act, and the neglect of preparations for crossing, but no one dared to take steps to bring him before a court-martial; for it was quite clear that he had received no orders, and that on the contrary he had suggested to the Major-General the advisability of preparing points from which to cross, and that the answer given him had been that it would be time enough when the Emperor ordered it.

The most likely version of the catastrophe is that the bridge had been mined, and left in charge of an unlucky corporal and some artillerymen or sappers, with orders to blow it UI) if they perceived the enemy. These poor fellows saw, heard, knew that part of the army was still on the right hank, but they did not know that there were no other points from which they could cross they saw a few of the enemy's skirmishers, and that was enough to make them carry out their orders.

It was said afterwards that, even had the bridge remained intact, we could not have made use of it, as it and the approaches to it were blocked by artillery and waggons. That may have been so, but at least the infantry might have attempted to cross, the cavalry would have abandoned their horses, and thus many lives might have been saved. The block arose from the fact that no supervision had been exercised, no orders given to keep this passage clear. Two strings of carriages were passing to the right and left of the boulevards of Leipsic, a third along the principal street of the town; all three met at the head of the bridge and it was a struggle which should get across first; the carriages caught each other's wheels, blocked up the space, and our unhappy fate was decided.

I escaped, however, with a firm resolve not to fall alive into the hands of the enemy, preferring to shoot or drown myself. Dragged along, as I have said, by the crowd, I crossed two little arms of the Elster, the first on a little bridge, holding on to the hand-rail, for my feet did not touch the boards (I was lifted up, and ten times over was nearly upset); the other upon a horse, lent me by quartermaster, whose name I am sorry to have forgotten, though I have since rendered him a service.

I found myself in an open field, still surrounded by the crowd I wandered about, it still followed me, convinced that I must know a way out, though I could find none marked on my map. There was still the main arm of the river to cross. Lauriston, who had been with me before we crossed the streams, was separated from me.

Some of Prince Poniatowski's aides-de-camp came and told me he was drowned I still thought he was behind me. I had begged him, as I have already said, to execute a charge to cover our withdrawal, and had not seen him since his return. The charge had not taken place; the cavalry, having heard of the disaster at the bridge, had not followed him, and had thought of nothing but their own safety. These aides-de-camp shed tears on telling me of the death* of their Prince; he had thrown himself into the water with his horse, but had been unable to climb the opposite bank, which was very steep; the tired horse had fallen backwards upon him, and both had been carried away by the swift stream.

During this story one of my aides-de-camp, Beurnonville, seized my bridle and said

'Monsieur le Maréchal, we cannot help that; the important thing is to save you.'

Thereupon he hurried me away at a gallop to free me from the unhappy crowd that still surrounded me, and told me that Colonel Marion, who commanded the engineers in my army corps, had succeeded in crossing to the other side. He had had two trees cut down and thrown across the river, joining them with doors, shutters, and planks. We hastened thither, but the place was blocked by troops. I was told that Marshals Augereau and Victor had crossed this frail structure on horseback, notwithstanding all the representations that were made to them ; that as the extremities were not fastened, and the two trees had slipped apart, the flooring had given way. There remained nothing but the two trunks, and no one dared cross them.

It was my only chance; I made up my mind and risked it. I got off my horse with great difficulty, owing to the crowd, and there I was, one foot on either trunk, and the abyss below me. A high wind was blowing. I was wearing a large cloak with loose sleeves, and, fearing lest the wind should cause me to lose my balance, or lest someone should lay hold of it, I got rid of it. I had already made three- quarters of my way across, when some men determined to follow me; their unsteady feet caused the trunks to shake, and I fell into the water. I could fortunately touch the bottom, but the bank was steep, the soil loose and greasy; I vainly struggled to reach the shore. Some of the enemy's skirmishers came up, I know not whence. They fired at me point-blank, and missed me, and some of our men, who happened to be near, drove them off and helped me out.

I was wet from head to foot, besides being in a' violent perspiration from my efforts, and out of breath. The Duke of Ragusa, who had got across early in the day, seeing me on the other bank, gave me a horse; I wanted dry clothes more, but they were not to be had.

One of my grooms, named Naudet, who had charge of my pocket-book, not daring to come across, confided it to a soldiers who undressed and swam with it. I had no money to give him. Marshal Marmont lent me his purse, and I gave it to the man. He accompanied us, naked as he was, for three leagues, and I was still dripping.

While we were still near the Elster, some skirmishers of the enemy came up in large numbers; I took about thirty men who had been posted not far from there to protect a cannon, and charged and dispersed them.

On the other side of the luster the firing continued; it suddenly ceased. Our unhappy troops were crowded together on the river-bank; whole companies plunged into the water and were carried away cries of despair rose on all sides. The men perceived me. Despite the noise and the tumult, I distinctly heard these words

'Monsieur le Marechal, save your men! save your children!'

I could do nothing for them! Overcome by rage, indignation, fury, I wept.

Unable to give any assistance to these poor fellows, I quitted the scene of desolation. Some of those who had seen me fall into the river believed me drowned; the rumour of my death spread rapidly, together with that of Prince Poniatowski, among the broken remains of the army which had succeeded in crossing the Elster, and at headquarters. Great joy was shown when I was found to be alive; all embraced me, wishing to know the details of the appalling disaster and of my marvellous escape. The Emperor desired to see me. I was so indignant with him that I refused to accompany his messengers. However, I was so earnestly begged and implored to go and give advice, in the interests of the army and of France, that, for fear of some new piece of folly, I at last yielded.

There were a number of people with the Emperor, among others Count Daru. He was seated at a table, a map spread before hini, and his head on his hand. With tears I related all that had happened.

For a long time I was haunted by the terrible picture, and the cries of my men, 'Save your soldiers ! Save your children!' still ring in my ears, and excite in my breast the deepest pity for the poor fellows whom I saw throwing themselves into the water, preferring certain death to the risk of being massacred or taken prisoners.

The Emperor listened without interrupting me; my audience were effected in various degrees, and all by their attitude displayed their grief. I ended by saying that the losses of the army in men and material were immense, and that not a moment should be lost in collecting the remains, and making for the Rhine. We were then at Markranstadt; I had walked three leagues, still wet, and very tired. The Emperor noticed it, and said coldly 'Go and rest.'

'I left him, indignant at his indifference, for he offered me neither refreshment nor help,' and yet I think I had said, in the course of my narration, that I had lost everything, baggage and carriages. After I had been pulled out of the river, the Duke of Ragusa told me that he had seen my carriages in the block on the boulevard at Leipsic, going in an opposite direction to the one I was following, while I, all the time, believed them to be at headquarters.

The previous evening I had sent orders that they should start, while the roads were yet clear and open ; but, by another fatality, the aide-de-camp who was in charge of them fell asleep, and when he awoke it was too late. They were thus lost, together with a bag containing from 12,000 to 15,000 francs in gold (£480 to £600), which he had orders to keep in his portmanteau. He explained to me later that the fear lest it should be stolen in camp had decided him to place this hag in my carriage, whence he had forgotten to rescue it when he was compelled to abandon everything, and flee with my attendants. I had also lost a great deal of silver money with my carriages. This circumstance having become known, everyone, as I left the Emperor's presence, cordially offered me all the things of which I stood in need—changes of clothes, and their purses; but when I opened my pocket-book, I found a good number of twenty-franc pieces inside, and therefore refused the latter.


 


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