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
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
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
'Try it, Sire, with your
own Guard if you will; my men are not in a fit condition now ;' and left
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
'You look very much
disturbed,' he said. 'What is the matter?'
'Read this,' I answered,
handing him the paper.
He read it through and
'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
What day of the month is
'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
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
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
'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
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
'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.