Recollections of Marshall Macdonald, Duke of Tarentum
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
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 positionwithout 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 failedwhich happenedso 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
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, probablethat 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
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
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
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
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
'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
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
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
'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
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