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Recollections of Marshal Macdonald
Chapter 16
The Eve of Wagram—Battle of Wagram—The Marshal's Bâton gained on the Field of Battle—Dismissal of Bernadotte—Armistice.


AFTER our fruitless attempt to destroy the bridge at Komorn, I received orders to advance towards Ofen, capital of Hungary; but shortly afterwards was recalled by forced marches to the chief headquarters at Ebersdorf, opposite the island of Lobau. It was clear that a great operation was being prepared. We were not the last to arrive, and by nine o'clock in the evening of July 4 we were at our posts on the Danube at the crossing-place that had been selected for the surprise of the enemy. We had marched sixty leagues in three days, and notwithstanding our excessive fatigue, and the heat of the season, we had but few laggards, so anxious were the men of the Army of Italy to take part in the great events that were preparing, and to fight in presence of their brothers-in-arms of the Grand Army, and under the very eyes of the Emperor.

That night an appalling storm burst upon us; rain and hail fell in torrents, driven by a raging north wind, the whistling of which mingled with the peals of thunder and the roar of cannon. This tempest was extremely favourable to our passage of the Danube upon bridges built on piles, at which they had been working since the fatal 22nd of the previous May [The Battle of Aspern-Essling] ; were masked by the thickly-wooded island of Lobau. I landed upon the island at about six o'clock in the morning; what we most wanted was a good fire to dry us, but the sun soon came out and warmed us with his kindly rays. Meanwhile, several corps of the Grand Army, which had roused the enemy from their security, were driving back their advance-guard, and this, being supported from behind, was slowly retreating towards the intrenched position of the camp.

I moved forward in my turn, and was momentarily placed in the second rank with the remainder of the Army of Italy. Scarcely had I deployed, being myself on the extreme right, when I heard cries of vive ' l'Empereur !' coming from the left.

The soldiers, as he approached, raised their shakos upon their bayonets in token of joy. He turned his horse towards the direction whence the cheering proceeded, and, recognising the Army of Italy, rode down the line; as he approached the right, I moved forward slightly. He spoke to no one, merely saluting with his hand. In spite of what the Viceroy had told me, that I should be pleased with my first interview, I was not more favoured than the rest. I do not know where Prince Eugène then was, but immediately on hearing that the Emperor had passed, he hastened up and said:

'Well, I hope you were satisfied. No doubt he confirmed by word of mouth all that I have written to you ?'

'He did not address a single word to me.,

'What ?,

'Not a word. He merely nodded, as if to say: " I can see through you, you rascal !"'

The amiable Prince was miserable, fearing, of course wrongly, lest I should think that he had been a well-meaning but clumsy interpreter ; and he gave me his word of honour, of which I had no need, so convinced was I of his friendly and honest truthfulness, that he had only written to me the Emperor's exact words.

It was already late. The troops of the Grand Army, tired with marching and fighting since the morning, formed into columns to let us pass. We thus had the honour of becoming the front rank and of pursuing the enemy, who only turned now and again in order to check our ardour. They eventually regained their positions, and we halted within short cannon-range. I was then in front of the position at Wagram ; the village of that name was on the left, and that of Baumersdorf on the right. A violent cannonade continued along the whole line while we were forming.

The Emperor came up to speak to the Viceroy, with whom I was talking; I fell back some yards. He did not speak to me as yet, but I heard him say somewhat carelessly:

'Order General Macdonald to attack and carry the plateau. The enemy are retiring, and we must make some prisoners.'

Thereupon he went away. The Prince, joining me, said:

'Do you know what the Emperor has just been saying to me ?'

'Yes,' I replied ; 'I heard his orders.'

'Well' what is your opinion ?'

'I think the Emperor is mistaken; the enemy are not leaving, they are simply retiring to the intrenched position they have selected for the battle. Do you not see, the entire army is there, looking very brave? In order to carry through such an undertaking, although we have but an hour of daylight left, we should need to attack with the whole army. Lose no time—go, or else send these remarks of mine to the Emperor.'

But he was afraid of him, and answered:

' Not I ! He ordered us to attack ; let us do it.,

'So be it,' I answered ; 'but you will see how we shall be beaten,' which of course happened, as it could not fail to do.

We started, well protected by artillery, but our leading columns soon stopped at the Russbach, a stream with steep banks, which covered the Austrian front. I sprang to the ground, made my staff do the same, and sword in hand we set the example of crossing it, and were followed by the men. This bold stroke drove the enemy back, and we obtained possession of the plateau. We were obliged to halt near their huts, and form into columns, in order to attack the enemy, drawn up not far off, and also to wait till General Grenier, who was crossing the stream with his troops, could come up to our support. We had passed the villages of Wagram and Baumersdorf, which other corps of the Grand Army had failed to take ; they had even retreated. The enemy debouched in large numbers, and attacked one flank, while the columns that we had held in check advanced against us.

General Grenier's troops, amazed at this unexpected onslaught, threw themselves in disorder among my men, breaking their lines and scattering them. All my efforts to restrain them were vain, although, sword in hand, with the majority of the officers, I had drawn up a line to check the fugitives. A rout ensued, and we were carried away, crossing the stream in the utmost confusion.

The Prince, who had remained on the other side, tried to stop the runaways. On coming close to him, I pointed out that he could not reform men under such a hot fire, as they were now panic stricken, although a few minutes before they had displayed such resolution ; that what he should do was to send some detachments of cavalry out of range, and that the fugitives would naturally stop on reaching them. Fortunately, the enemy was satisfied with having repulsed us, and dared not cross the stream in pursuit, although a few squadrons would have sufficed to disperse us, for night had come on, and we should have imagined ourselves charged by the entire Austrian army, and the result would not be difficult to imagine. The loss of my corps in killed, wounded, and prisoners was enormous, amounting to nearly two thousand men. General Grenier had his hand shattered by a bullet at the beginning of this ' brush,' as the Emperor called it.

I did not leave the Viceroy. We passed the night out in the open, as did all the army, keeping a sharp look-out while our officers tried to rally the fugitives.

' What will the Emperor think ?' asked the Prince anxiously.

' Nothing detrimental to you or me. He will realize, now that it is too late, that his orders were hasty. Where I think you were wrong was in not taking or sending to him the observations that I had made to you before embarking upon this unlucky attempt, the result of which was a foregone conclusion.'

At daybreak, on July 6, a violent cannonade began on our extreme right. We re-established our line, and formed up. The enemy in front of us remained motionless, but soon advanced some troops on the right; they slowly descended the heights as if to cross the stream in front of Bernadotte, who was posted on my left in front of the village of Wagram. On the right was Marshal Davoust, who, marching against the enemy, was either warned, or else met them coming towards him. The firing was violent, and, as the Marshal believed that he had the entire Austrian force against him, all our reserves were ordered up to support him and effect a diversion. The Emperor came to the spot where I was, and addressed himself directly to me, saying:

' Last night you carried the plateau of Wagram; you know the way up to it; carry it again. Marmont will at the same time attack the village of Baumersdorf; you and he seem to understand each other; I will send him to you.'

Marmont soon came, and we mutually agreed to support each other; and, in order not to expose ourselves to a repetition of the previous evening's occurrences, the General quite understood that the village should be carried before I commenced my attack upon the plateau; but while we were commencing operations, other events were taking place behind us on the left.

Massena commanded at the real point of attack. The Marshal could not make a stand against troops much superior to his own. He was driven back with great loss on to the tete-de-pont, by which we had passed after crossing the Danube. The Austrians sent forward their right. Davoust was kept in check; Bernadotte, repulsed before Wagram, left me uncovered. The movements of the enemy on my left and rear were concealed from me by little hillocks and inequalities in the ground. I slowly advanced towards the plateau, because Marmont had met with considerable resistance at the village of Baumersdorf, when the Emperor came up and changed my destination.

The retreat of Massena, which I then learned for the first time, and the retrograde movement made by Bernadotte, had left the centre of the army exposed. I therefore received orders to change my direction—to turn almost completely round, and go and take up my position near the hillocks. The Emperor betook himself to the highest of these in order to observe, and kept sending officers, one after another, to me to hasten my movements. The manoeuvre that I was carrying out, however, demanded some time, and, besides, I thought it would be imprudent to arrive disordered and straggling.

Vexed and anxious to know the reason for these reiterated orders, I galloped towards the Emperor, when I saw him leaving the hillock as fast as his horse could go, followed by his numerous staff. I continued, however, and gained the top of the hillock he had just quitted, when at once I saw what was the matter. The enemy, who were in great numbers at this point, were marching the more boldly that they encountered no resistance : I then understood (as the Emperor afterwards admitted) that his intention in thus hurrying me was to show that he was not in retreat there, as he was on the left. It was therefore necessary to risk something in order to carry this out with the utmost speed; but little did I think that this spot was to become shortly afterwards the principal point of attack, against which the numerous forces of the enemy would come to shatter themselves.

I therefore ordered four battalions, followed by four others which I deployed in two lines, to advance at the double; and while my artillery opened fire, and that of the Guard took up position (which the Emperor called the hundred gun battery), my two divisions formed themselves into attacking columns. The enemy, who were still advancing, halted; and redoubling their fire, caused us terrible loss. However, in proportion as my ranks became thinned, I drew them up closer together and made them dress up as at drill.

While I was doing this, I saw the enemy's cavalry preparing to charge, and had barely time to close my second line on the first one; they were flanked by the two divisions still in column, and the square was completed by a portion of General Nansouty's cavalry that had been put under my orders that morning. I ordered both ranks to open fire, my famous battery mowing down the cavalry. This hot fire broke them just as they were preparing to charge; many men and horses fell pierced by our bayonets. The smoke rising disclosed to me the enemy in the utmost disorder, which was increased by their attempt to retreat. I ordered an advance at the point of the bayonet, after previously commanding Nansouty to charge, at the same time desiring the cavalry officers whom I saw behind me to do likewise. Unfortunately, they were not under my orders, and the Emperor was not there to give any.

The enemy were in extreme disorder; but still their fire during their retreat did us much harm. I was in despair at the slowness of General Nansouty. Not far from us I saw a large number of abandoned pieces of cannon; the Austrian officers were bringing up men, by dint of blows with the flat of their swords, to remove them. At last Nansouty moved, but too late to profit by the gap that I had made in the Austrian centre. I halted to allow his division to pass ; I was, moreover, so weakened that I dared not venture into the plain to pursue the enemy (the more so as Nansouty's cavalry was repulsed, but not followed) until the Emperor sent me reinforcements. Unfortunately, the favourable moment had been allowed to slip. The results would have been enormous had Nansouty charged immediately, supported by the cavalry which was in the rear.

I had no staff-officers round me—one of my aides-de-camp had been killed, as well as my orderlies; the others were either incapacitated or away on a mission. While I was thus awaiting reinforcements, a general officer in full uniform rode up to me. I did not know him. After the usual greetings, he paid me great compliments upon the action that had just occurred, and finished by inquiring my name, which I gave him.

I knew you by reputation, he said; and am happy to make your acquaintance on a field of battle so glorious for you.' After replying to his compliment, I, in my turn, asked him his name: he was General Walther, of the Guard; I had never heard of him.

' Do you,' I asked, ' command that fine and large body of cavalry which I perceive in the rear ?'

' I do.'

' Then why on earth did you not charge the enemy at the decisive moment, after I had thrown them into such disorder, and after I had begged you to several times ? The Emperor ought to, and will, be very angry with his Guard for remaining motionless when so glorious a share was offered to them, which might have brought about such enormous and decisive results !'

' In the Guard,' replied he, ' we require orders direct from the Emperor himself, or from our chief, Marshal Bessieres. Now, as the latter was wounded, there only remained the Emperor, and he sent us no orders.'

He added that at the Battle of Essling several Generals had made use of regiments of Guards, and that they had suffered very much ; wherefore, since then, Marshal Bessieres had obtained instructions that they should only act altogether and under his orders, or under the direct command of the Emperor.

' But,' I retorted, ' there are circumstances in which such a rule cannot be considered as absolute—such a case as this, for example. The Emperor could not have failed to approve your action, as it would have secured the destruction of a considerable portion of the Austrian army. And, supposing that we had been repulsed instead of gaining a success, would you not have protected us ? and would you have retired from the field without a blow because you had received no orders ?'

These questions embarrassed him, he saluted, and returned to his troop. I afterwards learned that the Emperor had reprimanded him and the other Generals of the Guard very severely; but the fault really lay with the Emperor himself. He should not have forgotten the restriction he had imposed, and should have remained in person at the principal centre of the action to direct everything. Later on, in talking over these occurrences with me, he was still very bitter against his Guard.

' Why did you not make them act ?' he said. ' I put them under your orders !'

' I knew nothing about that,' I replied. ' I limited myself to repeated, but fruitless, requests. And how could I have made them charge, when I had endless trouble even to get General Nansouty to move ? He wanted so much time to form his men!'

' That is true,' said the Emperor ; ' he is rather slow.'

The reinforcement I had asked for came at last; it was composed of General Wrede's Bavarian division, and of General Guyot's brigade of light cavalry of the Guard. The enemy's retrograde movement had commenced, and I began mine to follow them. I thought the whole corps d'armee were doing the same.

Towards evening I caught up the rear-guard close by a village called Sussenbrunn, which was fortified with earthworks. I made a feint of attacking in front, while I made an oblique movement to outflank it ; but the Austrian General, discovering my intentions, immediately beat a retreat. I called back the outflanking party, and warned General Guyot to hold himself in readiness to charge. He sent me back word that his Guards were always ready, a boast that he justified a moment later; for scarcely had I given orders to attack, than both his men and the Bavarians charged together. The two troops stormed the camp, and cut off the column, bringing me back 5,000 or 6,000 prisoners and ten guns. Scarcely were these prisoners removed, when a reserve, posted on a height commanding the village, assailed us with bullets, grapeshot, and a well sustained musketry-fire. I saw General Wrede fall, and hastened to his assistance; his men raised him up, and he then said to me :

' Tell the Emperor that I die for him; I commend to him my wife and children.'

He was being supported, and, to reassure him, I said, laughing:

' I think that you will be able to make this recommendation to him yourself; and, what is more, that your wife will continue to have children by you.'

It proved to be merely a slight wound from a ball that had grazed his side. The wind of the ball had made him giddy.

The firing was then very severe, and the flames of the burning village helped to reveal our weakness, especially as night was coming on, and the enemy could see to shoot straighten I became seriously uneasy on looking round and finding myself isolated ; I had been so occupied in pursuing the enemy that I had failed to notice that the rest of the army was not following. I did not know what singular motive had stopped or suspended its movement, for at five o'clock they had taken up position, and I had received no orders countermanding my advance.

The Emperor, on the other hand, was much surprised to hear such persistent firing going on far off at one particular point of the battle-field. He sent several officers to discover the cause. I had no need to give explanations; our position spoke for itself. From these officers I learned that the whole army had been bivouacked since five o'clock.

Massena also was a long way to the rear of my left. He too sent to know which was the adventurous corps engaged so far ahead.

Meanwhile, in the twilight, and by lying at full length on the ground, we could distinguish in the distance some bodies of cavalry coming towards us, or rather towards the fire, and this reassured me ; but if the enemy had had any pluck, they could have surrounded me with superior force, seeing that all their reserves were collected on the heights. Fortunately, their sole idea was to cover the retreat and disorder of their wings.

The firing ceased on either side about eleven o'clock, but we remained under arms till daybreak. As I then perceived that the enemy had retired, I sent my cavalry in pursuit while waiting for orders. They kept on sending back numerous prisoners, including those taken the previous evening; these amounted in the aggregate to 10,000, and fifteen guns. At the Island of Lobau 20,000 prisoners had been made. I had therefore captured half the total, and the artillery I took was all that was captured.

A few hours later the Viceroy passed ; he gave us great praise, and said that the Emperor was very pleased with me, that he had as yet given no orders as to our ulterior movements, that I was to wait, and that he would follow my cavalry. I then noticed for the first time that my horse had received a bullet in the neck, but which had remained between the skin and the flesh; he was taken away in order that it might be extracted. As for me, I went to one of the houses in the town, where I had passed a few hours the previous night, worn out, and suffering from a kick given me by my horse the day before.

I soon fell asleep, but not for long, as I was awakened by cries of ' Long live the Emperor!' which redoubled when he entered my camp. I asked for my horse, but he had been taken away. I had no other, as the rest were far behind. As I could not walk, I remained on my straw, when I heard someone inquiring for me. It was an orderly officer, either M. Anatole de Montesquieu, or his brother, who was afterwards killed in Spain. He came by the Emperor's order to look for me. On my remarking that I had no horse and could not walk, he offered me his, which I accepted. I saw the Emperor surrounded by my troops, whom he was congratulating. He approached me, and embracing me cordially, said :

' Let us be friends henceforward.'

'Yes,' I answered, 'till death.' And I have kept my word, not only up to the time of his abdication, but even beyond it. He added :

' You have behaved valiantly, and have rendered me the greatest services, as, indeed, throughout the entire campaign. On the battle field of your glory, where I owe you so large a part of yesterday's success, I make you a MARSHAL OF FRANCE ' (he used this expression instead of ' of the Empire'). 'You have long deserved it.'

' Sire,' I answered, ' since you are satisfied with us, let the rewards and recompenses be apportioned and distributed among my army corps, beginning with Generals Lamarque, Broussier, and others, who so ably seconded me.'

' Anything you please,' he replied; ' I have nothing to refuse you.'

Thereupon he went away much moved, as I was also. Thus did I avenge myself for all the petty annoyances caused me by General Lamarque, who, although he had heard me mention his name first of all, still continued to worry me.

Scarcely had the Emperor turned his horse's head, when many exalted personages came to congratulate and compliment me. The one who showed me most affection was the Duke de Bassano, at that time Secretary of State, then Berthier, Prince of Neuchatel, Major-General of the army. Both these men were in Napoleon's most intimate confidence.

' No doubt you knew what he intended to do?' I said to the latter.

' No,' he replied naively.

Then came embraces and handshakings that I thought would never end. Many would have passed me by had it not been for the Emperor's favour.

The Emperor caught up the Viceroy, and related to him with considerable emotion the scene which had just taken place and my elevation. The latter promptly despatched an aide-de-camp to congratulate me, to invite me to breakfast, and to beg me to bring my troops forward on the highroad between Vienna and Wolkersdorf. I found the Prince in the hunting-lodge known as the Rendezvous; he was at table with the Artillery-Generals Lariboisiere and Sorbier, the former of whom was killed at Konigsberg, at the end of the campaign of 1812; the latter is still living in the neighbourhood of Nevers. As soon as I was announced, he hastened to meet me, and we embraced each other effusively. '

The good accounts that you have given of me have procured me this honour,' I said to him. ' I shall never forget it.'

' It is you, and you alone,' he replied, ' who have gained your baton.'

The others joined in congratulating me; I only knew Lariboisiere by reputation.

' I am sure,' I continued to the Prince, ' that you knew what the Emperor had in contemplation, though you concealed it from me this morning.'

He answered frankly, ' No,' and added after a moment's thought, ' I remember now that while I was walking and talking with the Emperor in his tent early this morning we spoke of the battle. He regretted that so little had resulted from it, and after a moment's silence said: " It is not Macdonald's fault, though, for he worked very hard." I see now,' added the Prince, ' that he was then thinking of rewarding you, and was determined to give as much eclat as possible to your nomination.'

Such was the circumstance that raised me to the dignity of which, I am convinced, I had been deprived by intrigue when the first appointments were made. It was necessary to have had the command in chief of armies to obtain it, and I had had temporary command of that of the North, full command of those of Rome, Naples, and the Grisons, while several others had only commanded large divisions or wings. I think that I have already said that my intimacy with a person belonging to the Emperor's family weighed against me and also the Moreau trial, in which an attempt had been made to implicate me, but which attempt signally failed, as I was proved entirely innocent of any complicity, and finally intrigue and jealousy. One Marshal the less, and especially a man who had every claim to the dignity, was a victory for the vain and the ambitious.

After breakfast the Viceroy proposed to me to accompany him to the Emperor's headquarters at Wolkersdorf, but I had no fresh horses, and, moreover, was suffering a good deal from the kick I had received.

' Here we are,' I observed, ' in hot pursuit of the Austrians. If the Archduke John, who is commanding their other army, and ought to be at Presburg, pursues us in turn, he may be able to seriously interrupt our communications. I suppose that the Emperor has taken steps to provide against this ? Can you in any case question him so as to find out if he has any precise information as to the position and objective of this army. If really at Presburg, I fail to understand why it did not take part in yesterday's affair; but it is lucky for us that it did not.'

The Prince departed, and on his return told me that he had submitted my observations, to which the Emperor had replied:

' What would the Archduke do on the rear of my army ? He must know that the battle has been lost by his brother.'

' No doubt,' replied the Prince; ' but if he meets with no opposition, nothing need prevent him from harassing you.'

' Well,' replied the Emperor, frowning, ' if he dares to do so I will wheel round and crush him !'

The Prince had not recovered his stupefaction even when he related the answer to me.

Nevertheless, the Emperor thought over what I had said. Shortly afterwards he learnt that the Archduke John was making a movement to follow us. We immediately received orders to face about, and the whole Army of Italy went to meet the Austrian Prince, who in his turn retired as soon as he learnt that we had come to fight him and to join General Reynier's force. This General had replaced Marshal Bernadotte, who had been dismissed by the Emperor for publishing a general order, wherein he attributed the victory of the previous day to his Saxons, although they had vanished from the field and I had taken their place. That had been the object with which I was changing my direction, when the Emperor himself came to me to order it, and made me hasten so much by sending constant messages to be quick: speed was necessary, as I have related. The Emperor, very angry with Bernadotte, issued, to the Marshals only, an order wherein he expressed his displeasure, and said that the praise given by the Commander of the Saxon force belonged to me and to my troops.

As we were approaching the river March, a staff-officer from the Emperor's headquarters galloped up with a despatch from the Major-General.

' What has happened ?' I asked.

' Upon my word, I don't know. I hear some talk of an armistice, but I am not acquainted with the contents of the despatches I have brought you.'

It was indeed the armistice that was officially announced to me, with orders to halt.

' The armistice is signed,' I said to the officer.

' Quite likely,' he replied carelessly and indifferently.

The next morning I received orders to recross the Danube, return into Styria, and take up my headquarters at Gratz.

The results of the battle had been so scanty that I could not conceive how it was that the Austrians were compelled to beg for an armistice; but I heard afterwards that their army was in such a state of disorganization that it was equivalent to a rout. Neither was it known then that the Emperor only granted the truce because he also needed opportunity to repair his enormous losses, and because we should infallibly have run short of ammunition. Rewards even were offered to those who collected the balls of either army. On our side we had fired close upon 100,000 rounds!

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