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Recollections of Marshal Macdonald
Chapter 20
Alarm at Naples—A Trap—A Terrible March—Russian Untrustworthiness—Alarm of the King of Naples—Plan of Action—Arrival at Dantzic—Summons to Paris—Reception by the Emperor.


WHILE our weak body of foreigners was assembling, the authorities of Tilsit, frightened and alarmed for the safety of their town, came to implore me to preserve it. They thought we were going to set alight to it out of revenge for the defection. I sent them back reassured, and we started in good order. The enemy's scouts pursued us; I had no cavalry now to keep them at a distance, and they were not worth powder and shot.

Two parlementaires—one Russian and the other Prussian —were brought, by mistake, to me in the midst of my column. The latter summoned me insolently to lay down my arms ; I treated him with scorn, and dismissed him. I did not know until after the former had left me that he was a Frenchman, formerly aide-de-camp to General Moreau, and by name Rapatel. I did not recognise him, but, more prudent than his comrade, he asked me to come to an arrangement with his General, Prince Repnine, who proposed a suspension of arms until the peace, which he said was imminent, was concluded, and to give him an interview in the meantime.

The trap was too clumsily set to catch me. I told him that a suspension of arms could be brought about without a convention; that he could easily see that I was only marching in order to retire, and that they could very well stop following if they thought fit to do so; that, as to the interview, as I had no reason for refusing it, I would meet his Prince at a certain spot at a given hour the next day, but that after that hour he need not trouble himself. He left, and I continued my march towards the forest.

We marched for twenty-two hours in rain, through water, and in pitchy darkness; many of my men fell out, wearied, but rejoined us next day. At length, at six in the morning, we reached this dense forest. I had caused the entrance to it to be guarded by the troops, who, before and while I was waiting at Tilsit for the rear-guard, had escorted our baggage to Labiau.

The aide-de-camp who had accompanied the parlementaire, and who was to bring back the answer to my proposal, had not returned. The hour fixed for the interview struck; no sign of Prince Repnine. However, we thought we saw him riding up; but it was only an officer commissioned to apologize for the unpunctuality of his General. The Prince, who had chanced to be away when my aide-de-camp came, asked for a delay of an hour or two.

' I quite understand,' I answered, ' that the Prince may have business to see to ; but so have I. Present my compliments to him, and express to him my regrets at missing this opportunity of making his personal acquaintance; he will esteem me the more for it. His ruse is too simple.' I added: ' Does he really suppose that I am to be taken in by such groundless, not to say absurd, pretexts ? Return, and send me back my aide-de-camp.'

As he wished to protest that his General was acting in good faith, I made him remount his horse. Scarcely had he gone a few yards, when the cannon became audible. I called him back. and said :

' What is the meaning of that ? Is it thus that your General exhibits his honesty ? You deserve that I should retain you as a hostage, but I will give your Prince a lesson in good faith. Return to him, and say that henceforward any communications between him and me must be carried on by cannon-balls.'

The firing ceased at the outposts ; our Commandant told me that he was under arms, when the enemy, meaning to drive him back, charged him. He had received and repulsed them with bayonets, and they had retired. My aide-de-camp, who was with the Prince, begged to be sent back, observing that he was horribly afraid of French bullets.

' Go,' replied the Prince. ' I have ordered the firing to cease, and my troops to retire. I meant to surprise your General, but he has been sharper than I.'

We reached Labiau, where I found orders to go straight to Konigsberg, to confer with the King of Naples.

I left the command to General Grandjean, who had General Bachelu under him; during my absence they had a very sharp skirmish at Labiau. On the road I met counter-orders. The King, compelled, he said, to go to Elbing, and being unable to see me, begged me to send him a plan of operations, and my opinion upon what we ought to do in our present position.

I had no hesitation in recommending what I should have ordered myself had I been Commander-in-chief—the evacuation of all places in Poland, the kingdom of Prussia, and on the Vistula, to concentrate upon the Oder with the troops arriving from Italy, and to await the fresh levies that were being made in France.

My division came up with me, and I took under my direction that of General Heudelet, composed of freshly-joined conscripts.

We reached Konigsberg, where I found Marshal Ney alone. He had committed the mistake of evacuating the town at the first manifestation of an insurrection, which might have broken out at sight of the enemy, who were close behind us. I suggested to the Marshal to come away from it immediately with me; some hours later he required all his courage to carry him through several threatening groups. I had returned to my troops, occupied partly in keeping off the enemy, and partly in obtaining provisions, and it was to them that Marshal Ney owed his safety.

At nightfall I continued my retreat towards Elbing. The King of Naples sent me orders not only to stop, but to return to Konigsberg. I caused representations to be made to him concerning the obstacles in the way, warning him that the enemy had already advanced by another road upon Preussich-Eylau, and that he himself would be immediately surrounded, or that his communications would be cut off. He reiterated his orders, adding that I was misinformed, that he had numerous spies about the country, and that the enemy could not move a step without his being informed of it.

Judging better than he, I took no notice of his orders, and continued my retrograde movement, which made Murat furious. He soon changed his tone, however. The advance of the enemy upon his right flank and rear being confirmed, he applauded my foresight, and summoned me post-haste to Elbing to confer with him. I had kept along the Passarge as far as I could consistently with prudence.

I arrived during the morning, and found the King ready to mount his horse, and very impatient to get away. I pointed out to him that, as my troops could not arrive before the evening, his sudden withdrawal would be the signal for an insurrection, and for the pillaging of the magazines, the preservation of which was so necessary to my men. My representations were in vain, and his resolution was strengthened by the noise of cannon from my rear-guard, who were fighting as they retreated. He desired me to remain a few days at Elbing, and then to throw myself immediately into Dantzic, of which I was to take the command. I showed him the impossibility of holding Elbing with so few troops, that we were almost outflanked as it was, and that even next morning it would be too late to leave it. As to remaining in Dantzic, I observed that there was already a specially commissioned Governor in the town, and that he would quite rightly refuse to yield his command to me. Thereupon he told me to send all my troops thither, and to go myself to his headquarters, the position of which was as yet undecided. I asked him if he had not carried out at least a portion of the plan I had submitted to him.

' No,' he replied; ' I have forwarded it to the Emperor, whose orders I shall receive in three days at latest.'

' What !' I exclaimed, ' you have forwarded it? It was sent to you in confidence. The Emperor, who probably is in complete ignorance as to all that has taken place, and is still occurring, will be furious, and rightly, too, if this plan has not been developed.'

' I limited myself to asking for his orders,' he answered coldly. ' And where shall we be in three days ?' I added.

The Emperor ought to have been on the spot, and even then I should have doubted his determination, and yet the adoption of my plan was the only reasonable course. These garrisons, which were thus to be left to themselves, without appearance, and, I may add, without hope of speedy succour, were bound, with the exception of Dantzic, to fall for want of provisions, and by their own weakness. It was already too late for Pillau and the places in Poland, but not for Dantzic.

The Prussian Government appeared to ostensibly disavow the defection of its troops; I would have entrusted to it the care of this place, not because I had any faith in its honour, but in order to occupy a portion of its forces, which would have diminished the number of our enemies, by giving it an interest in keeping this important place from the greed of Russia. I demonstrated that by this means we could unite on the Oder all our fighting troops; that is to say, about 60,000 or 70,000 men. The Russians had also suffered severely. The Prussians would need time for organization, and by taking up that position we should hold in check the greater portion of that monarchy. We could thus wait in safety the levy of 300,000 men that was being made in France.

Nothing could be urged against this reasoning, and Murat therefore did not attempt any answer. He was entirely occupied with his retreat, and his return to Naples, which he effected immediately, without any notification to the Emperor. He made over his command to Prince Eugene; it was a pity, both for it and for himself, that the Emperor did not give it to the Prince in the first place when he left the army.

Knowing the indifference of the King of Naples, of which he had just given me fresh proof in sending to Paris the plan I had prepared for him in confidence, and in announcing that he would within three days receive orders which he would not be able to execute even in part, I required of him, before we separated, that he should give me written instructions. He at first made difficulties, which proved his impatience to start, but at length gave way, and they were taken down by Count Daru, who was present at the interview. He then mounted his horse, and started amid the shouts of the populace, which were called forth rather by his extraordinary costume than by his person.

Orders had been given to all the troops in Elbing to follow him, but I retained a regiment of infantry to protect the magazines until the arrival of my own men ; this, however did not prevent a large portion of them being pillaged. I gave my soldiers some hours' rest that night, and then we continued our retreat. We had great difficulty in crossing the Vistula on the ice, and in scaling the steep declivities of the left bank. The courage of my troops redoubled as we neared Dantzic, which was regarded as the goal of salvation, and the end of fatigues, privations, and sufferings.

Since leaving Courland we had fought every day and marched every night. This had weakened us, but we were now within a few days' march of our long-desired haven. After the passage of the. Vistula, a suggestion was made to me to lay an ambuscade for the enemy. It succeeded perfectly, and at length we took up our position around the walls of Dantzic.

I immediately resigned the command of my troops to General Rapp, the Governor. I was grieved at parting from them. Generals, commissioned and non-commissioned officers, and privates, although they were all foreigners (with the exception of my staff), and only our allies, had rivalled each other in their zeal, devotion, courage, and efforts, during the long, painful, and dangerous retreat we made during that disastrous winter from the banks of the Dwina, with no rest save our forced halt at Tilsit. I received from all thanks for having saved them from the perils which daily environed us; their regret at our parting was not less than my own. I faithfully kept the promise I had made. Officers and men received a present of a month's pay, the superior officers and generals in proportion. The small French division did not share in it, as it had only been under my orders for a very short time—since Konigsberg ; but, in justice to it, I am bound to say that it behaved very well, although formed of only conscripts.

The next morning the enemy attacked part of our lines. General Rapp had invited all the generals to a farewell breakfast, and we were then at table. Each one hurried to his post ; and that evening I started, not knowing where the principal headquarters were established.

I took the road to Berlin ; there I learned that they were at Posen. I asked for orders, and did not have to wait long for the answer. I was ordered to Paris to assist in the reorganization of some new army corps. The day before my departure I was robbed at the inn of the sum of 12,000 francs (£480), destined for the expenses of my journey. My carriages had rejoined me; I sent them into Westphalia, near Cassel, to rest my horses during my absence. I felt real sorrow on learning that two very pretty Russian guns, of small calibre, that my troops had taken by assault from a little fortified castle on the Dwina, and which they had presented to me, had been left, by the carelessness of one of my aides-de-camp, at Dantzic in one of my baggage-waggons that needed some repairs I had intended them to decorate Courcelles!

I reached Paris without adventure. I had very little reason to be satisfied with the Emperor's reception of me. He started on seeing me, and said not a word. No doubt he felt resentment against me because of my proposal to abandon all that we held beyond the Oder. He had also been deceived by untruthful accounts of my treatment of the Prussian troops, which was said to have contributed to their defection; however, to convince himself of the contrary, he had only to read the letters of Generals Yorck and Massenbach. I left his presence indignant that all my efforts and devotion should have met with so bad a reward, and went no more to Court.

A few days later, however, I was recalled. News had just arrived that not only did the King of Prussia approve the conduct of his troops, but that he had allied himself with Russia, and that all his subjects were taking up arms against us. Then the Emperor acknowledged to me that he had been misled concerning me and the disingenuous policy of Prussia; that I had acted wisely; that he had been incorrectly informed as to the last disasters of Wilna and Kowno. He said that our misfortunes were great, but not irreparable; that he and I had begun the war at the same time, and must finish it together; that it would be the last campaign we should undertake, and that I must get ready for it. He added that he put implicit trust in his father-in-law, the Emperor of Austria.

' Beware !' I answered. ' Do not trust the clever policy of that Cabinet.'

The auxiliary Austrian force had acted very feebly during our disastrous campaign. With a little determination (or without secret orders not to risk his troops) Prince Schwarzenberg, who commanded them, and who unfortunately had under him General Reynier with the Saxon contingent, might have held in check Tchitchakof's army, and prevented it from harassing our rear at the Beresina.

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