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Recollections of Marshal Macdonald
Chapter 19
Preparations for the Russian Campaign—On the Niemen—Murat— Retreat towards Tilsit—General Yorck—Intense Cold—Anxiety and Doubts—Attitude of the Prussians—Defection of the Prussians.


WHEN I reached Paris I found all prepared for the famous, albeit disastrous, Russian campaign. Notwithstanding the state of my health, which, however, was improving, I was ordered to start during the month of April, 1812. I had left my armchair in the fortress at Figueras; I left one crutch in Paris and the other in Berlin.

I had command, on the left of the army, of the 10th corps, made up of the Prussian contingent, and of a division formed of three Polish regiments, one Bavarian, and one Westphalian ; my staff was French. The King of Prussia wrote to me begging my attention for his men.

We marched to the Niemen, where we took up our position, and on June 24 the entire army crossed it during the night, without the slightest opposition. The Russians retreated before us; I did not fire a shot till we came into Samogitia. My route lay towards the Dwina; I was ordered to garrison the Baltic coasts and to lay siege to Dunaburg and Riga. The former of these fortresses existed only on plans, but it possessed a good tete-de-pont.

A reconnaissance made beyond the Dwina, between the two places, caused an alarm upon the right of the river, and determined the Russian generals to set fire to the suburbs of Riga, which might have aided our approach to the citadel, and to evacuate the tete-de-pont of Dunaburg, which I occupied.

It was then that we discovered that the fortifications of this imaginary town only existed on paper, and not in reality. Here and there a little earth had been turned, but there was not even a hut, consequently no inhabitants, only an old Jesuit church in ruins.

I had orders to recall the siege-artillery from Magdeburg, where it had been recast at enormous expense. Another train had left Dantzic for Riga; it required no less than forty thousand horses to bring it. It was placed at Grafenthal while waiting for the troops and material necessary to convey it across the Dwina, and to invest Riga. I submitted several plans; but as the army was going farther away towards Moscow, I was left in uncertainty and indecision. During the interval a body of 10,000 Russians, coming from Finland, attempted to possess themselves of the whole siege-train, but it was valiantly defended by the Prussians. I had, in pursuance of orders, taken up my headquarters in a windowless and unfurnished castle not far from Dunaburg, on the extreme right of my line; I hastened up with some troops, but the affair had already terminated to our advantage. From the account I sent in of this incident it was realized that the season was too advanced, and this enormous and valuable material too exposed, and I received orders to send it back to Dantzic.

The evil genius that impelled the army to Moscow had planned out its misfortunes from the very opening of the campaign until it closed with the forced retreat. The Emperor, should he fail to make a passage for himself, had conceived the idea of making for my positions—an illusory idea, which was scarcely more practicable than that of pre- serving this ill-fated army. I was informed of the daily trials they had to meet with, and although I offered my services, together with those of my inactive, well-fed, and warmly-clad troops, I was left stationary.

I began, however, to draw in my posts, and to concentrate my forces gradually. The enemy, who watched my every movement, fancied that I was preparing to retreat, and attacked me at various points to harass me; I encouraged and laid a trap for them, into which they fell head foremost. I turned suddenly, attacked them vigorously, and broke their line. They fled, leaving a large number of prisoners in our hands. This affair would have produced much more important results had the Prussian General Yorck obeyed my reiterated orders to proceed rapidly from Mittau in the direction of Riga, in the rear of the Russians, as soon as I had broken their line. I had already observed in his letters a marked increase of coldness on the part of this General, which increased with the misfortunes of the Grand Army, but I was still far from suspecting the catastrophe that occurred shortly afterwards.

The Emperor, having succeeded in forcing the passage of the Beresina, and reopening communications with Wilna, started incognito for Paris, leaving the command to Murat, King of Naples. This was an additional misfortune, for this General, of the most distinguished bravery, was really only fit to lead a cavalry-charge, or to harass the enemy by his activity. He hoped to be able to rest and reorganize the debris of the army at Wilna, but the Russians dislodged him four-and-twenty hours after his arrival. The last remains of that immense army perished there.

On quitting Wilna, Murat at last ordered me to fall back upon Tilsit. This order was dated December 10. It was confided to a Prussian Major, who, instead of coming direct to me as he might have done in thirty hours, followed the high-road from Konigsberg to Tilsit, Memel, and Mittau; he was thus nine days in reaching me. I received it during the day of the 18th, and as I had foreseen everything, and made all my preparations beforehand, all my columns moved the next day, December 19. I was already aware that the enemy's scouts were crossing Samogitia behind me. I fully expected to meet with every sort of obstacle, and resolved to overcome them all. The most serious matter was not the enemy, but the river Niemen. The bridge had been removed on account of the ice, and if the thaw began all my efforts would be vain.

I threw out parties on every side, so as to mislead the enemy as to my real destination. At a given point I sent off my advance-guard towards Taurogen ; I led the centre by another route, and General Yorck had command of the rear-guard, and occupied each day the bivouacs I had the previous one.

We had to push forward, and the troops had but very few hours' rest out of the twenty-four; but to counterbalance that they were well clad, and did not want for provisions, in consequence of the precautions I had taken in July to establish depots everywhere. My experiences of the winter campaigns of 1794-95 in Holland, and more especially of that of 1800 in the Grisons, and when crossing the Alps, had made me requisition 30,000 sheepskin pelisses from the Polish and Russian peasants, giving them in exchange the skins of the sheep consumed by my troops. This wise precaution saved them from hunger and cold, which was so severe that, during a portion of my march, the thermometer went down to 21 or 28 degrees Reaumur. I lost only a few men, who, in spite of the penalty of death with which I had threatened both sellers and consumers of spirits, got drunk and perished, removed by the cold into eternal sleep.

The enemy had posted troops on either side of the Niemen to dispute my passage. They were vigorously attacked by the Generals of my advance-guard, Grandjean and Bachelu, who did well in not waiting for me. I had made a detour in order to flank and turn the enemy. The affair had terminated, after great slaughter, to the glory of the two Generals by the time I came up; they had made some thousands of prisoners, and taken several pieces of cannon.

I established myself at Tilsit, and opened communications with Konigsberg. I informed General Yorck of the happy issue, and desired him to hasten his march; we had opened the way, and he might arrive the following day. The weather was milder, and the thaw had begun. My troops had a day's rest, of which they stood in some need. My intention was to continue the retreat as soon as my rear-guard joined me; but I waited in vain. I knew that the enemy, by forced marches, were crossing the Niemen above my position, and that their principal body were following the course of the Pregel in my rear. I was therefore exposed to be cut off a second time on the road to Konigsberg.

I sent in all directions after General Yorck. Two days previously he ought to have arrived at Taurogen to support my advance-guard, which had quitted it in the morning; they had no news of him. At that time this General was preparing an act of treachery unparalleled in history.

Four days had already passed in uneasiness, impatience, and, I may almost say, anguish. The news brought in by my emissaries—the Prussian officers—was so uniform that it could only have been concerted ; they had neither seen nor heard of General Yorck. I tried to keep back my suspicions, to crush them; I thought that a feeling of honour ought to prevent their existence; some obstacle, sudden panic, might have determined the General to retrace his steps, and to make for Memel with a view to re-entering Prussia—a direction that I meant to take myself if I failed to open a passage across the Niemen. The thaw might at any moment destroy the ice; the enemy were reinforcing themselves, manoeuvring, gaining upon me, and approaching the only communication that, to tell the truth, I was still keeping.

Had I been less confident in other people's honour, the attitude of the Prussians would have opened my eyes to what was going on around me. Far from being uneasy at the fate of the rear-guard, they seemed not to trouble about it, especially since the arrival of an officer of their nation, who had come post-haste from Berlin. He was, I believe, a Count von Brandenburg, a natural brother of the King. When they were in my presence they appeared to share my uneasiness. Various signs, and the opinion of my Generals, coincided with my suspicions. I argued in this manner, which seemed to me common-sense, and to admit of no reply:

' If they have orders, or if they take upon themselves to abandon our cause, what hinders or prevents them ? They are our principal force—17,000 or 18,000 men against 4,000 or 5,000; and, moreover, can I count upon the two Bavarian and Westphalian regiments forming a division with three Polish regiments ? As to the latter, no doubt can exist about their fidelity; I was wrong to have conceived any about the others.'

I added:
"They will explain to us that the misfortunes threatening their country compel them to separate themselves from us; but they will not drive their cowardice to the extremity of giving us up. They would ask nothing better than to see us leave here, so that they might charge us with having abandoned the rear-guard,' as I was frequently begged to do.

I heard many stories, too, which were proofs of ill-will, and even of insubordination and disobedience.

I ended by declaring positively that until the end, which could not be long delayed, I would remain firm in my resolution; that my life and career should never have to bear upon them the blot of having abandoned, on account of fears which were perhaps imaginary, the troops committed to my care; and that, under any circumstances, I was determined to risk everything, even to recross the Niemen to go in search of the rear-guard, rather than voluntarily separate myself from them by quitting the banks of the river.

On the last day of the year 1812 the enemy made demonstrations all around me. During the night I feared an attack on the town of Tilsit, which was open on all sides. I ordered the troops to concentrate on all the roads, to send out patrols and reconnoitring parties, to keep a good look- out, to barricade themselves well, and, finally, to be ready to take up arms at the first signal.

The weather was very bad. The troops commanded by General Bachelu, who was detached, refused to obey and to march ; his decision of character carried the day; they formed up, but their disposition was far from reassuring. A Prussian battalion was on duty at headquarters,

' They will carry you off!' someone said to me. ' Let us go!'

' No,' I replied ; ' I prefer to risk it.'

Between eleven o'clock and midnight, the commander of this battalion came and told me that he had received orders from General Massenbach, his chief, to get under arms.

' That must be a mistake,' I said; ' I only gave orders that the troops should be ready in case of an alarm. Go and say that to your General, and say, further, that I do not wish to fatigue or wet the men unnecessarily.'

He came back no more; probably he had been let into the secret.

Although they were on their own territory, the Prussians applied to me for money to satisfy their wants. I had no authority to dispose of the contributions levied in Courland ; however, as they had power to take what I would have refused them, I caused a distribution of about half, or perhaps a third, of the sum demanded, leaving it to the Governments concerned to arrange about repayment.

The Prussians informed me with some haughtiness that they had a right to a share of the contributions ; there was nothing for it but to put a good face on the matter and dissimulate. The same Commander of the headquarters battalion came and told me that the money given for his troop was insufficient; that they were in want of shoes; that he had just discovered some hundreds of pairs in a shop, but that they would not let him have them on credit. He asked for 1,500 or 2,000 francs (£80) more.

' You are too late,' I answered ; 'the treasury is shut,'

However, as he insisted, I gave him the money out of my own pocket, and never saw it again.

In great uneasiness about the thaw, I had the ice sounded night and morning. While, wrapped in my cloak, I was trying to get the sleep that had avoided me for four nights, Colonel Marion, of the Engineers, came to me at dawn, and said:

' I congratulate you, Monsieur le Marechal, you have at last received news of General Yorck.'

' No,' I replied quickly.

' I fancied you had; for as, in accordance with your orders, I was testing the ice, I saw all the Prussians rapidly recrossing the Niemen. I thought you had sent them to meet the rear-guard. General Massenbach, as he passed by me, gave me these two letters for you.'

' Good heavens !' I exclaimed; ' we are betrayed—perhaps given up ; but we will sell our lives dearly.'

I hastily glanced at the letters, caused the assembly to be sounded immediately, gathered our faithful Poles, Bavarians, and Westphalians at the back of the town, and commenced a forced march in order to gain the Forest of Bomwald, a sort of defile. I harangued the troops, not concealing our difficulties, and promised them a month's extra pay if, as I trusted we should, we succeeded in reaching Dantzic in safety.

The Prussians had displayed such haste in their desertion, that they had omitted to warn the detachment that acted as my escort. The officer commanding them came to me shortly after my orders had been issued, and, from his unconscious appearance and manner, it was easy to see that he suspected nothing of what had happened. He could not speak French, but I caused an account of what had passed to be related to him; he turned pale, and shed tears of indignation. He wished to remain with and follow us. I told him to call his men to horse; thanked his detachment for their zeal, fidelity, and attachment ; gave them 600 francs from my own pocket, and the same to the officer for a. horse; and, despite their entreaties, sent them to join their compatriots.

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