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Recollections of Marshall Macdonald, Duke of Tarentum
Chapter XXV


THE Emperor rejoined the army at the first announcement reaching him of the passage of the Rhine ;* but of all the levies and reinforcements that had been announced with such a flourish, none ever reached me. On paper, I was supposed to he in command of a force numbering from 50,000 to 60,000 men, whereas actually, with Molitor's division, which I brought with me, I had not more than 3,000.

I was going to Verdun to join the Duke of Ragusa,~+mn~ who was in command on the left of our line, when I received orders to come to Châlons, whence I was sent to Vitry-on-the-Marne. A hostile force, 30,000 strong, was already in the neighbourhood. I rallied my troops at the Ghaussée, where I was attacked, but very feebly, next morning. During the day, however, the enemy made preparations to dislodge me. I held our position till night, when I withdrew to Châlons. The evacuation of this place had already begun, but it would take us at least twenty-four hours to finish emptying the magazines, which were so precious to us.

The enemy appeared at break of day, and deployed in turn all their forces, which I reckoned at 30,000 men. Prudence unquestionably compelled me not to fight on such unequal terms, or not to expose Châlons; but, despite our utmost activity, the emptying of the magazines could not be effected before the following night.

On the other hand, the General in command at Vitry, who had 2,000 or 2,500 men, sent me word that he was in a very critical position—without victuals or means of defence; that he was already invested on the right bank of the Marne, and that if he did not receive immediate orders to retire, he would be constrained to surrender, and that we should lose the garrison almost without striking a blow. I determined to send him the orders he asked for, and to protect his march on the way to join us. This was an additional reason for defending Châlons. My troops covered the town, and did, in fact, defend it very courageously till nightfall, when the firing ceased on either side.

General Yorck, who commanded at this point, had made up his mind to occupy the place; he summoned me to yield or to evacuate it, otherwise he would set it on fire. That would have been easily done, for many parts of the town are old, and the houses built of wood.

Owing to some misunderstanding, his flag of truce was admitted (although, according to my custom, I had renewed my prohibition), and was brought to me. He was the Count of Brandenburg, a natural brother of the King of' Prussia, who in 1812 had arrived at Tilsit from Berlin a day or two before the defection of the Prussian corps. This corps was the very one that I had been fighting all day, and commanded by the same leader. I had hitherto always treated this young man with consideration and politeness; he showed a decided want of both to me in delivering his message.

'I have more respect for your character than you have yourself;' I said, 'otherwise I would cause you to regret your impertinent manner. I will not expose Châlons to the disorder attendant upon a night-occupation, but I do not mind telling you that I shall evacuate it to-morrow morning. Your General knows me well enough to be convinced that I shall not allow myself to be intimidated by threats any more than by deeds. That is all r have to say to you. Go.'

'We shall set fire to the town,' he replied.

'As you please,' I answered, and dismissed him.

On the previous day I had given orders that the bridge should be mined, as also a triumphal arch that either gratitude or flattery had raised to the Emperor at its extremity, on the left bank of the Marne. It was not to be blown up except in case the mines failed—which happened—so as to obstruct the bridge, at least for artillery.

The threat of shelling the town was quickly put into execution, and immediately spread consternation amongst the inhabitants. I had made every preparation to extinguish the fire in the most exposed quarters. A few houses were set alight, and I then witnessed a heart-breaking spectacle, the authorities imploring me to evacuate the town, and part of the population running hither and thither half clothed, uttering cries of despair, and cursing the author of a war which had brought such desolation upon France, and to whom, all the same, they had recently erected a triumphal arch.

I groaned at this pitiful sight; but my duty would not admit of my yielding nor of compromising my troops and the general operations of the army. The night was very severe; it was freezing hard, and the poor creatures were half dressed. The women, their hair streaming and with bare feet, carried about their babies in long clothes. I shall never forget it. The enemy, observing that their fire produced no result, or perhaps for want of ammunition, ceased it, and the inhabitants retired to their homes.

I evacuated the place in broad daylight, after ordering a light to be set to the mines under the bridge; but they were badly laid, and only shook it. I then exploded those under the triumphal arch, and, when it had fallen, it made a sufficient obstacle to prevent an immediate entrance. The enemy, seeing us prepared to oppose any attempt, refrained from making one all that day.

My orders were to communicate with the Duke of Ragusa, who was supposed to be at Arcis-sur-Aube. I sent my cavalry there, but on the way they met that of the enemy, and fell back upon Etoges. The garrison of Vitry, which had retired unhindered, was already there. A portion of my corps accompanied me thither, while the rest made for Jaâlons. I thus covered the two main roads between Châlons and Paris.

On reaching Champtrix, I learned from some prisoners and from the inhabitants that part of Bliicher's army was advancing to Montmirail. As this communication, therefore, was closed to me, I went across country to Epernay, where all my troops reassembled; but as it was possible— nay, probable—that the enemy would reach La Ferté-sous ouarre before me, if I did not take rapid steps to prevent it, I made a forced march. I had halted and slept at Epernay, and, on continuing my route, left my rear-guard behind to impede the enemy when they quitted Châlons. The egress from Epernay is narrow, and may be defended for a considerable time.

I stopped at a village among the hills on the left of the road; but scarcely was I settled there when I was told that my rear-guard, which, however, had not been pressed, was retreating, and that the enemy's vedettes had already reached the village where I was breakfasting. I had but just time to throw myself across my horse and gallop through the vineyards to catch up my troops, who had marched on some distance. Had it not been for the peasant's timely warning, I should have been taken while at table. I escaped with nothing worse than a fright.

The General in command of the rear-guard had been frightened by false reports. I slackened his march, and made him face about each time the enemy seemed to come too close to us. We took UI) our position and rested for a few hours at Dormans, whence we continued our march towards Château-Thierry, which had already been passed by my front column. The important thing was to reach La Ferte-sous-Jouarre, where the two roads meet, and to pass the night there.

I learned, on arrival, that the Russian General Saeken was at Jussire. Had I been a few hours later I should have had to retreat to Château-'l'hierry and make for Soissons, which would have separated me from the army and have left Meaux uncovered, and from thence the enemy would have met with no obstacle till they reached Paris. My rear-guard still followed me. They had orders to destroy the bridge at Château-Thierry, but it was only partially done. My advance-guard took up their position at La Ferté, on the heights above the road to Montrnirail, where they were soon after attacked.

We skirmished all day upon a ground favourable to that kind of defence, which allowed time for my rear-guard to come up; they were somewhat pressed, and only passed through La Ferté. I did not know where the principal headquarters were, as I could obtain no answer to my frequent representations upon my situation. I lost ground towards the evening, and, fearing simultaneous attacks from the two corps that were debouching by the two roads, I recrossed the Marne next day at Trilport, where the bridge had been mined, in spite of the opposition attempted by the inhabitants.

I had strictly forbidden that the bridge should he blown up without my express orders, and, as I wished to be on the spot, I remained where I was and slept upon a heap of faggots piled up there to be embarked, instead of going on to Meaux.

Utterly fatigued and worn out, I had fallen asleep near a large fire, when I was suddenly startled by a violent detonation. Valaz, General of Engineers, who was beside me, ran to the scene of the explosion. It seemed as if we were predestined to misfortune. Owing to some misunderstanding, a match had been laid to the mines; some of them had not exploded, but the bridge was so broken and shaken as to scarcely hold together, and it would have been too dangerous not to complete the work of destruction, the more so as a simple picket would now suffice to guard it, and as there was another bridge intact at Meaux.

I kept the Emperor carefully informed of my march, and of the circumstances that had brought me to this point. 1 also sent word to the King of Naples, who was commanding in Paris.

The alarm there was very great, and naturally so, for we were now only eleven leagues distant, and the great allied army was marching upon Nogent, Bray, and Montereau. The Emperor, informed by my despatches, made a very hold flank march, and, falling unexpectedly upon Blucher at Champauhert and Château-Thierry, gained a great victory.

I had received orders to direct my cavalry so as to assist these attacks, and, although it had to make a long round by Meaux, it arrived in time to take part in the success; then it was that I bitterly regretted the bridge at Trilport. Unfortunately these victories had no result save that of prolonging our agony; they raised the spirits of the men, but they thinned and weakened our ranks daily.

While these events were in progress on the Marne, the main army of the enemy had seized the three places mentioned above on the Seine. It therefore became necessary to let go our hold, and hasten with all speed to cover Paris, reassemble our scattered remnants, and give battle.

My troops were sent to a point between Brie-Comte-Robert and Guignes. While they were marching I rushed to Paris to put some business matters in order, little thinking that within a short space the capital would fall into the hands of the allies. I promptly rejoined my troops. After the reassembly was made and the attack ordered I was sent to Bray, where I found the bridge destroyed : the contest was confined to a Shari) cannonade.

We were more fortunate at Montereau. The enemy had taken up a position on the right bank, where they were speedily attacked. One of our corps, repulsed at the first onset, was quickly supported by others who threw themselves forward gallantly, broke the enemy's ranks, and put them to flight. They recrossed the Seine in the utmost disorder, and were eagerly pursued, and I was sent for.

The allies retired beyond the Aube. On the way thither they sent parlementeres to propose an armistice. Generals were appointed on either side to treat. This armistice, the enemy stated, should be the preliminary of the peace that was being so slowly negotiated at Châlons. I know not whether either side were of good faith in this congress, but assuredly the allies were not.

Lusigny, between Troyes and Vendmuvre, had been decided upon for the settlement of the armistice. The allies have since declared that the territory between the Seine and the Aube had been neutralized while the articles of agreement were being drawn up; but, whether by a misunderstanding or bad faith, the Emperor ordered the Seine to be crossed at Troyes, and sent mc to Châtillon.

The negotiators of the armistice, finding themselves surrounded by fire, broke up the conferences. The Congress at Châtillon was alarmed at my approach, and the Duke of Vicenza, the principal French representative at the Congress, sent to me imploring inc not to advance; indeed, all the foreign ministers threatened to retire. I stopped, and the Emperor approved my compliance.

While we were marching towards Bar-sur-Aube, he was informed that Bliicher's army, which he had beaten and routed at Champaubert and Château-'I'hicrry, was retracing its steps. He started with all his reserves to fight them again, leaving orders with me, as the senior Marshal, to take command of the troops he left behind him (that is to say, those of the Marshal l)uké of Reggio, and of General Gerard, which were as weakened as my own), to cross the Seine in person, and put myself in line with these two corps on the Aube. I did this immediately.

I marched through a very difficult country near Essoyes, and took La FertC; but while I was seeking to communicate with Bar-sur-Aube, where the Duke of Reggio ought to have been, some detachments of the enemy showed themselves at a short distance off,' beyond the woods belonging to the ancient abbey at Clairvaux. I immediately concluded that the two corps had been compelled to retire from Bar, but yet I could hear no cannon which could force them to such a step. I hastily summoned the troops who had carried La Ferté, and, as my communications on the left with them were thus cut off, and knowing of no other place save Bar-sur-Seine at which I could cross the river, I made a forced march throughout the night. I only reached the place a quarter of an hour before the enemy's advance cavalry. I at once sent news to Troyes, whither had gone the staff of the two corps.

Marshal Oudinot explained to me the position of affairs, and the reasons for his retreat. He pressed me, as I had the general command of the troops, to come and take my place more in the centre. I therefore continued my movement down the left hank of the Seine, and two days later reached Troyes.

For several days Previously I had been unwell. On my arrival I was obliged to go to bed. The Marshal and General Gerard came to see me, and we agreed upon our plan. The first thing to be done was to supply Troyes with the means of temporary defence, so as to give my corps time to come up. We settled that one of Gerard's corps should make as long a stand as possible within and without the town, the other being kept in reserve, and that the Marshal's corps should be posted on our side of the suburbs, where they should await the arrival of my troops, which were to come up early next day. Our anxiety was lest the enemy might cross the Seine at Méry, occupy the high-road to Nogent. seize Bray and Montereau, and thus separate us from the Emperor. In that case we should have no road but that by Villeneuve-l'Archevêque and Sens.

I had betaken myself into the environs, the infantry of the two corps were placed as I have described; 'I was to follow them with mine. I was breakfasting quietly, when General Gressot, chief of Marshal Oudinot's staff, came to tell me that the Marshal's troops had just been placed in the position agreed upon. I had ordered a portion of the cavalry to follow the old route by Pavilion and Le Paraclet.

As we were starting to join the Marshal's force, an officer brought me intelligence that the enemy were just leaving Troyes, and that I had not an instant to lose; we were in a road running into the highway. I replied that such a thing was impossible, as there was one division within and without the town, another in the rear, and the Marshal's force in reserve.

'They are all gone,' answered the officer.

All gone and I had never been told of it

Ill as I was, I jumped on my horse, when I saw the enemy's advance-guard. I dashed at them with my aides-dcecamp and my escort, and we drove them back towards the town. Meanwhile, my carriages started at full gallop, and reached the high-road. I rejoined General Gerard, who was continuing his retreat, by order, as he told me, of the Marshal, who was far on ahead. He had not remained in position, although General Gressot told me that he had placed his troops according to our agreement. Ten minutes later my communications were cut off..

We marched all day, skirmishing as we went. The cavalry had one brush. We were so far ahead that the enemy could not engage us in a very unequal combat. That evening we made our quarters at Grez and Granges. At the latter place I found Marshal Oudinot, and inquired why he had quitted his post that morning. He replied that the Young Guard was not intended for a rear-guard.

'If that is so,' said I, 'I have no further orders for you. You must go to the Emperor for them.'

I continued retreating. Next day we reoccupied our positions on the Seine at Nogent, Bray, and Montereau, to defend those points where the river might be crossed. But the enemy passed it below our left wing, thus making it necessary to change our direction, and march perpendicularly to the river. They deployed in front of us, made a vehement attack on our left, which was formed of the corps of the Duke of Reggio, and drove us back upon Provins. We held firm all day, but not without loss, crossed the ravines, the narrow defiles, and the town, and took up our position in the rear.

Our situation was very critical, and we had no news of the Emperor, though not because we had not sent him reports. The enemy made no attempt next day; this inactivity did not seem natural, and I ordered all my cavalry to be in readiness to make a general reconnaissance the following day. The enemy had only left some feeble detachments to observe us, and were beating a hasty retreat.

On hearing this I quitted the Maisoiz Rouge, where I was quartered with the Duke of Reggio, in order to follow their tracks. It was clear that this retreat, with forces very superior to ours, could only have been occasioned by a flank movement made by the Emperor. In fact, while we were on the road, I received orders to march with my full force in the direction of Arcis-sur-Aube. The Duke of Reggio made a forced march to attain the point mentioned. I hastened in front of my troops to reach Arcis, but on the way I came upon a morass, of which the ford had been spoiled and rendered useless by the transit of some heavy material. I ordered a search to be made for another, which caused considerable delay. While continuing my journey, I perceived afar off, on the left of the Aube, all the enemy's forces drawn up in squares, motionless, and my troops drawing away towards Vitry-sur-Marne. Much surprised at this movement, I spurred on my horse to learn the reason; I found the Emperor in the public square at Arcis near a camp-fire.

'What is your motive, Sire,' I inquired, 'for withdrawing your troops from here?'

'The enemy are retreating rapidly,' he replied, 'and I am cutting off their communications. We have got them now, and they shall pay dearly for their temerity. I have summoned the heavy artillery to Sézanne to follow my movement to Vitry, and have issued orders to our detachments at Nogent, Bray, and Montereau, to proceed there by forced marches.'

These detachments were commanded by General Pacthod; the artillery and waggons of my army corps were protected by them.

What!' I exclaimed, 'the enemy retreating? They are in position on the other side. I myself saw them in considerable force. They also can discern your retrograde movement, and if they attack you here, how will you resist them?'

They would not dare to do so; their only idea is to get across the Rhine, and if they be still there it is simply in order to let all their baggage-waggons pass. Besides, I have sent the Duke of Reggio and the cavalry against them, with orders to mask my movement, and to prevent the enemy from observing it.'

'How is that possible?' I inquired. 'The town is in a hollow; the Aube runs between two lulls; the enemy are on one, and your troops are climbing the other.'

'Never mind,' said he; 'when will your force arrive?' 'Very late to-night.'

'Very good. You will support the Duke of Reggio, who will continue to act under your orders.'

He told the Major-General to draw up my instructions. While the latter was dictating them, Marshal Ney, who had been to reconnoitre the enemy, entered.

'What are they doing?' asked the Emperor.

'They are not stirring from their position, and do not look at all as if they meant to attack.'

A short time afterwards, while we were still in conversation, Colonel Galbois, of the general staff; galloped up to us at the top of his speed, and in an excited manner informed us that the enemy were advancing towards us.

'That is impossible,' said the Emperor.

At the same moment we heard the guns.

'Duke of Tarentum,' said the Emperor, 'mount your horse, and go and reconnoitre.'

I found the Duke of Reggio very uneasy; his position was indeed most critical.

'Hasten to the Emperor, I beg you,' he said; 'he must come to my help, otherwise I am done for.'

'Do not expect any help,' I replied; 'all his troops are on the way to Vitry. He is convinced that the enemy are retreating.'

We were still concealed by a slope.

'Let us see,' said I, 'what is threatening us on the other side.'

The Marshal's cavalry quickly descended I thought they were too much exposed. They would have done better had they been posted on the slope towards Arcis, with vedettes on the edge. Had that been done, the enemy would not have been able to gauge their force.

On reaching the top we found ourselves face to face with the enemy's scouts. We hastily turned, but I had just time to glance at our foes and to see that the allies were resolutely marching towards us.

'Hasten,' said the Duke of Reggio—'hasten to Arcis.'

'When I have got past your troops,' I said, 'for the sight of me galloping to the rear might intimidate and perhaps scatter them. You have three bridges,' I added, 'one on each side of you, and one in the middle of the town; have them guarded at once.'

I quitted him, riding leisurely. As soon, however, as I had passed his lines, I set spurs to my horse and galloped to Arcis, but the Emperor was no longer there. He had mounted his horse and followed his troops to Vitry. An officer belonging to the general staff was waiting to obtain intelligence from me, and with orders for me to remain at Arcis until I received further instructions.


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