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Recollections of Marshall Macdonald, Duke of Tarentum
Chapter XXVI


The Duke of Reggio's troops, hard pressed, were retreating in disorder; the danger was that the enemy might take advantage of the confusion to cross the river they were already on the bridge. The Marshal had a division in reserve I pressed him to order it up. It was of the utmost importance to us to retake the bridge, which was severely contested. We reconquered it, and at length set to work to blow it up. Night had fallen. My troops had arrived they were posted at every point, but still we were not without uneasiness as to the possibility of a nocturnal attack.

An officer came from headquarters to ask for news, and to bring me orders to hold firm for two or three days. The Emperor's illusion regarding the retreat of the allies was not yet dissipated.

When morning dawned, we saw the enemy quietly in their positions. They remained thus all day, but towards evening they began to move apparently in the direction of Vitry. I immediately sent forward a division to forestall them, stop their movement, and cover mine. All our troops had orders to follow, a portion only of my cavalry remaining behind to check for as long as possible any troops which might debouch from Arcis.

From the road that we followed we were able to observe the enemy's march; we hastened to get through a nasty- looking defile. The following day was spent in skirmishing; but, as I foresaw a serious attack towards the evening, I drew up my infantry in a favourable position, not far from the point where the enemy would cross the Marne. The artillery covered them my cavalry, which formed the rear-guard, received orders to retire if the enemy showed any disposition to charge, and to come and draw UI) behind my line, so as not to mask their fire.

While making these arrangements I was very uneasy, for, behind my left, I saw the principal allied forces marching along the Marne, and I feared that they would reach the ford before the division I had sent there; that was my only communication with the Emperor. The latter still retained his opinion as to the enemy's retreat. All these demonstrations, he insisted, were merely feints to deceive us the more thoroughly as to their veritable intentions of gaining the Rhine. He therefore continued his movement towards Saint Dizier and Vassy. As to myself, I was closely followed, and, on the rear of my right wing, Vitry was occupied by the enemy.

The two sides came into collision near the ford over the river Marne. The allies were fortunately repulsed by the French division, and, as night was drawing on, they did not think well to hazard an engagement on their flank, and left us masters of a point the importance of which had perhaps escaped them.

Events occurred upon my front exactly as I had foreseen them. The enemy had been reinforced, and now charged my cavalry, which came at full gallop and very hotly pursued, to take up the place that had been assigned to them. Scarcely was my line unmasked when their adversaries received a volley of grapeshot and musketry which threw them into the utmost disorder, and drove them off for the night.

We spent that night in crossing the river upon a miserable raft that we afterwards destroyed. Next morning found us drawn up in battle array upon the right bank, without having been disturbed either by the garrison of Vitry, or by the troops that we had repulsed on the previous day. They deployed before us; the river ran between us, and they were Out of range. If, on the previous day, the enemy, who were in strength, had pressed us vigorously, it would have been all over with us, or, at all events, with our communications with the Emperor. These were unfortunately cut off for all who had been left behind, and who were to have reunited at Sézanne. I had made sure that this convoy had not passed before us; I had even noticed, as I came along near the defile I had traversed the day before, guns and carriages abandoned, evident proofs that either a combat, a surprise, or an alarm had occurred there. Having no horses that could draw it, I was unable to move all this material, which could not belong to the heavy artillery; moreover, I did not know whether any fresh orders had been given since those for the junction at Sézanne.

While we were facing the enemy I noticed that they were sending troops on towards Vitry, where they would have no difficulty in crossing the Marne.

I received at this very moment orders to send my cavalry to Saint Dizier, and shortly afterwards fresh instructions to follow with all my troops. As the Emperor had started thence for Vassy, I received fresh orders to cross the Marne, which I did next day without having been disturbed since the morning of the preceding day. I was instructed to take up a position between the Marne and Vassy.

We had just established ourselves, when I received warning, and soon afterwards saw that the allied cavalry was debouching from various directions. I sent word to the Emperor, who ordered me to advance while he came up in Person. He collected all the cavalry that was available, and, going before us, drew UI) on the other side of the Marne in the plains of Saint Dizier.

The enemy had but few infantry, but they had collected at this point about io,000 cavalry, with a proportionate amount of light artillery. The question was whether this cavalry was covering the army, and if not, what had become of it. The conflict was long and severe. As my artillery was placed upon the heights below which flows the Marne, I commanded the battle-field. Never since the beginning of the war had I an opportunity of seeing so many cavalry engaged. At length the enemy were broken and put to flight, losing 3,000 horses with all their artillery, and were pursued for some distance.

We arrived before Vitry next day, and had melancholy proof that the main army of the allies was no longer there; what could have become of it? It was not difficult to guess, for as it had not followed us, and had left a strong garrison in the town, it was clear that it had faced about and was marching unopposed to Paris!

We had tramped through pouring rain, with hardly any intermission the men were utterly exhausted, and the ground so soaked that we could move neither cavalry nor artillery. The Emperor said to me:

'Storm the town.'

'What!' I exclaimed, 'in the Present condition of the troops? Do you not see how large the garrison is on the ramparts? I grant that they are only made of earth, but, still, they are strengthened with fraises and palisades, and the fosses are full of water; how are we to cross them?'

'Collect some bundles of straw and throw them in,' answered the Emperor.

'Where are we to get them? There is nothing in the neighbouring villages. And, besides, can we make a solid bridge with a few bundles of straw? Moreover, can there be any hope of success if such a coup de main is attempted with men utterly worn out like mine are now?'

As he still insisted, I dryly said

'Try it, Sire, with your own Guard if you will; my men are not in a fit condition now ;' and left him.

He sent out a reconnoitring party, and their reports convinced him of the impossibility of the enterprise.

A bulletin printed by the enemy was brought to me, giving a detailed account of the seizure of the great convoy of artillery that had been collected at Sézanne, and of all the escort, who had been made prisoners, after a brave defence, at Fère Champenoise, where the encounter had taken place. It included the names of the generals, and of the commissioned and non-commissioned officers. I saw the names of all those belonging to my corps. I took this sheet to the Major-General, and begged him to let the Emperor see it at once.

'That I will not,' replied he; 'the news is too bad. Take it to him yourself.'

'No,' said I; 'you are our proper intermediary; it is part of your business.'

We argued the point with considerable warmth; but as I reflected that the knowledge of these events could not fail to alter the Emperor's plans, and that there was no time to be lost, I took the bulletin to him myself.

He was alone near a camp fire.

'You look very much disturbed,' he said. 'What is the matter?'

'Read this,' I answered, handing him the paper.

He read it through and smiled.

'It is not true,' he said. 'That is what the allies always do.'

'Not true!' I cried; but all the circumstances are detailed. I recognize all the names and appointments; our heavy artillery ought to be just about Fère-Champenoise now.

What day of the month is this?

'The twenty-seventh of March.' (The battle had taken place the previous day.)

'Look here,' said the Emperor, 'this is dated the 29th, which will only be the day after to-morrow.

For an instant I was nonplussed; I had not noticed the date.

'That must be a mistake,' I said; this unfortunate affair must have taken place yesterday at the spot mentioned.'

I took up the printed sheet again, and returned to the Major-General's bivouac, where I found his officers and the Emperor's aides-de-camp.

'Well, what did the Emperor say?'

'He does not believe this bulletin is authentic.'

'Will you allow me to look at it?' asked General Drouot, of the Artillery. He examined it, and continued: 'I fear that you are only too correct, Monsieur le Marchal. It must be a misprint; this is a 6 turned tail downwards.'

I went with this explanation to the Emperor, who made no remark but

'The devil! That alters matters.'

He walked up and down for a few moments, and then said:

'So you don't think we can carry Vitry by main force?' 'I thought,' was my reply, 'that you were convinced of it'.

'Quite true,' he answered. 'Very well, let us go away!'

'Where will you go?'

'I don't know yet; but for the present to Saint Dizier. Remain here,' he added; 'act as the rear-guard; keep the enemy in check, and prevent them from leaving the town. I will send you further orders; I am sure to get news at Saint Dizier.'

'Whatever it may be,' I replied, 'Paris, left without defence, will have fallen before you can get there— if you are going thither, that is—and however fast you may travel. Were I in your place, I would go into Lorraine and Alsace, collect the garrisons from there, and wage war to the knife upon the enemy's rear, cutting off their communications, intercepting their convoys and reinforcements. They would he compelled to retreat, and you would be supported by our strongholds.'

'I have already ordered General Durutte to collect 10,000 men round Metz,' he said; 'but before deciding upon anything I must have reports.'

He started. That night I received orders to retire to Saint Dizier, and there found fresh ones to follow the Emperor, who had gone in the direction of Vassy, Doulaincourt, and Troyes, so the plan of throwing himself into Alsace and Lorraine had clearly been abandoned.


 


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