Concentration at DresdenContradictory
OrdersMovements of the EnemyBattle of LeipsicCommencement of
the Retreat Treachery of the HessiansDestruction of the
BridgeConfusion and DisorderPassage of the ElsterA Terrible
SpectacleReception by the EmperorLoss of Carriages.
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 me to ask my opinion upon our situation, and what we
had better do.
We were now in Octoberwithout 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
offensivethat is, if he saw any chance of success, which, in my opinion,
was improbable, as we had hitherto failed to force our entrance into
Bohemiahe 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 be 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 him attentively, had made but one objectionnamely, 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, and 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 Bessieres !'
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-de-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 80,000 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 16; 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 firednot 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 18th, 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. I
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 nut 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 positionat
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 high-road '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 Neuchatel, brought me
orders to immediately send a division to the extreme right to the assistance of
' See for yourself,' I answered, ' whether I can spare any
troops; I rather stand in need of reinforcements myself. Go and tell the
' 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 Lindenaualbeit, it would have been easy to find many places at
which men of different arms 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 up if they perceived the enemy.
These poor fellows saw, heard, knew that part of the army was still on the
right bank, 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 a 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
During this story one of my aides-de-camp, Beurnonville,
seized my bridle and said :
' Monsieur le Marshal, 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 soldier, 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 Elster 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 Marshal, 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 him, 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 bag 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
needchanges 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.