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Recollections of Marshal Macdonald
Chapter 21
The Grand Army— Battle of Lutzen—Occupation of Dresden—Battle of Bautzen—A Futile Congress—Passage of the Bober—Surrender of Vandamme—Skirmish at Goldberg—Battle of the Katzbach— Disorderly Retreat—General Sebastiani—Serious Preparations


IT was in the month of August, 1813, that I started for Saxony to take up the command of the 11th corps of the Grand Army. The day following my arrival at the Emperor's headquarters, I had orders to attack Merseburg, which I carried, or rather stormed, after a stubborn resistance ; as I knew that the place was defended by Prussian troops who had served under my orders during the preceding campaign, and that they were commanded by the same General, my onslaught was the more vehement.

We marched upon Lutzen and Leipsic. I was in position between these two points ; the allies were in front of us on the left bank of the Elster. The name of that river, which a few months later was so nearly fatal to me, has remained engraven on my memory. The Emperor, believing that all the enemy's forces were Collected at Leipsic, sent thither General Lauriston, who commanded the left. He came up to me, and gave me orders to support him if necessary ; but at that moment he received intelligence that the allies, who had debouched from Pegau, were advancing towards us. The Emperor would not believe it, because he was firmly convinced that their main force was at Leipsic. Marshal Ney, who was with him, confirmed him in that idea, and declared he had noticed nothing unusual on the Elster.

However, firing began, and was directed against the very point occupied by the Marshal's corps ; it increased in violence, and approached rapidly ; then the Emperor despatched the Marshal, and shortly afterwards followed him. Warnings came in apace; but, notwithstanding them, the Emperor left Lauriston in difficulties near Leipsic, and me in position to support or protect him; but scarcely had he reached the central position, when he changed my destination, and ordered me to march straight ahead towards the Elster. I had not started, when a second order came, telling me to go more to the right ; but, as the enemy continued to advance, a third order directed me to march straight on to their guns.

We went at the double, and it was full time, for the enemy's cavalry had already slipped in between me and Marshal Ney, who had lost much ground. The enemy, having realized my movement, turned to retreat; but I had had time to point thirty pieces of cannon, and they galloped rapidly through my grapeshot.

We continued to advance on their right flank, and forced them into a position covered by a little artificial canal used for floating wood. After crossing—not without loss—a little valley, we crowned the heights; the plain lay outstretched before us, but without cavalry it would have been unsafe to venture there.

Suddenly the fire ceased all along the front of the army, and was directed at us ; the enemy sent forward their cavalry reserves, composed of the Guards of the sovereigns of Russia and Prussia, Thrice they attempted to break our squares, but in vain; each time they were driven back with loss, and the third time in such confusion as must have given great advantage to our cavalry had we possessed any. Only a few squadrons covered our left, commanded by the Marquis de Latour-Maubourg, who wished nothing better than to charge. I sent to beg him to do so ; but the Viceroy, under whose orders he was acting, refused, in spite of my entreaties, as he did not wish to risk the little body of brave men who were our only resource. The battle was gained by the infantry and the artillery. It took a second time the name of Lutzen.

The battle-field, our front especially, was strewn with dead and wounded, whom, for want of means, we had been unable to move. Early next morning the Emperor paid us a visit. He was very pleased. He praised us for our energy of the previous day, and for the vigour of our attack, which had stopped the victorious march of the enemy, and turned the scale in our favour.

During the day, after we had crossed the Elster, which the enemy did not defend, the Emperor generously distributed rewards, promotions, decorations, pensions, titles, majorats, etc., to my army corps. My reward was the command of the advance guard.

The enemy did not long occupy Dresden ; they blew up the bridge, and only defended the Elbe long enough to protect their retreat by the right bank. While means for rebuilding or mending the bridge were being sought, my infantry got across the breaches by means of ladders; as soon as it was sufficiently repaired, the artillery crossed. The Emperor, who, on this occasion, had taken upon himself the functions of baggage-master, stopped all vehicles; but I obtained an exemption for some of those belonging to my corps, and that evening took up my position on the heights above Dresden.

Next day I followed the traces of the enemy, but we had no affair of importance till Bautzen. I thought that I was being followed by the remainder of the army; but it had been allowed to rest, and I found myself isolated in presence of that of the enemy. In order to impose upon them, I spread out my troops like a spider's web, and waited the arrival of the other corps. Successive summons made them hasten their advance. A single step backward on my part would have exposed us to certain destruction; I therefore preferred to run the risk of staying where I was, pretending to advance, and lighting at night fires scattered among the different lines, so as to make believe that the whole army was present.

I thus passed several days, until at length our supports came up. We attacked at Bautzen, crossed the Spree, and I took a considerable share in the Battle of Wurschen, which brought us into Silesia, after two sharp skirmishes, at Bischofswerda, and before reaching Löwenberg. The former of these towns caught fire during the engagement; I believe the fire was the act of marauders after we had occupied it. An armistice was concluded during the action at Jauer, and after the occupation of Breslau. We went into cantonments; I took the district of Löwenberg for my army corps. We had done enough to retrieve the honour of our arms after the terrible misfortunes of the preceding campaign. France and the army earnestly longed for peace.

A Congress met at Prague, but it was obvious that none of the Powers were acting in good faith. Austria was the soul of the Congress; she had in reality remained neutral since the reopening of hostilities, but, as afterwards transpired, she had bound herself by treaty with Russia and Prussia as early as the previous February. A significant proof of this was given by the manner in which the enemy retired before the armistice; they grouped themselves at the foot of the mountains of Bohemia, instead of recrossing the Oder. Driven into the position they had taken up, they could have no choice but to lay down their arms, supposing always that Austria meant to make her pretended neutrality respected ; that was apparent.

The negotiations fell through, and hostilities recommenced, the allies being reinforced by the Austrians, and soon afterwards by the defection of the Bavarians. Before the truce was broken off, I had orders to reconnoitre all the outlets from Bohemia, from the Saxon frontier as far as the Bober, which was the line of demarcation on my front, while my right extended to the mountains. At the same time the allies entered Bohemia. They moved thither their principal forces, and attacked me two or three days before the expiration of the armistice. They expected to take me unawares, but I was ready for them, as, instead of cantoning my troops. I had formed camps sufficiently near each other to be able to concentrate promptly on any threatened point.

The day after my return to Löwenberg I received news that the enemy were attacking. I went half-way to the point indicated, but could neither see nor hear anything. The enemy's movements were concealed by hillocks and other obstructions on the ground. As I received no further news, I concluded that the post attacked had been forced, and that the detachment which defended it had been unable to fall back upon Löwenberg according to their instructions.

In order to clear up this doubt, and while my breakfast was preparing, I took a picket of cavalry, and rode out slowly and carefully to the point whence news had reached me that the enemy were advancing. On reaching it I found all quiet, and learned that the enemy had advanced, but had immediately retired again. Information had been sent to me by an orderly, I never received it, as the man must have lost his way or got drunk.

I had ridden three leagues out to this point, and as many from Löwenberg, in my first reconnaissance; our horses needed rest as much as we did ourselves. I accepted a meagre breakfast, heartily offered, with alacrity.

Just as I was remounting my horse to return, an officer galloped up as fast as he could ride, to tell me that the enemy had crossed the Bober at the very point I had quitted, that the attack had been so sudden that there had not been time to harness my carriages, which were probably taken ; he was not certain about this, because, as soon as the enemy appeared, he had hastened away in search of me. I concluded that it could be only a brush at the outposts, and decided to return ; but ere I had ridden half a league, fresh information and fugitives confirmed what I had first heard. I was thus cut off from the principal point, and from almost all my forces.

I waited a few hours more for the return of the scouts whom I had sent out; their reports all tallied. At last I decided to make a great detour, and bring in my outposts ; we marched all the rest of the day and through the night, and reached Löwenberg worn out with fatigue. There I learned what had occurred. Lauriston's corps, which had joined me the previous day, had attached itself to my troops, and together they had driven the enemy back across the Bober. They had had some losses, and my carriages were gone.

In consequence of the account of this event that I sent to the Emperor, he hastened up with some reserves and the Guard. We had taken some prisoners, and learned that the principal attack of the allies was to be made on the left bank of the Elbe. The Emperor, nevertheless, thought that he would still have time to force the passage of the Bober ; we did achieve it, took Bautzen, and pushed on as far as Goldberg.

The Emperor returned to Dresden. On his way he heard that the Emperors of Austria and Russia had debouched from Bohemia, and were marching upon that town. As he descended the mountain overlooking it, he could see the position of the allies. He was just in time to beat them and force them to retire, but unfortunately they were not pursued with sufficient vigour. The Emperor only sent Vandamme with his corps against them, and he, believing himself supported, pushed on boldly, and entered the defile of Toplitz.

As one of the enemy's corps had become cut off, the allies returned and attacked Vandamme, who was soon attacked also from behind by this same corps, which was only seeking a way out. Thus taken between two fires, in this sort of funnel, Vandamme surrendered, was made prisoner, and nearly all his troops with him. The Emperor, it was said, was unwell, and had returned to Dresden with his reserves and his Guard while this disastrous event was in progress. As usual, Vandamme got all the blame, but this time he had only been guilty of an excess of zeal.

After the Emperor had quitted me and returned to Dresden to fight the allies, as I have related, he sent for me; and after telling me that he had need of Marshal Ney, put under my orders Ney's own army corps, together with that of Lauriston and General Sebastiani's cavalry. Ney and Sebastiani were carrying on operations in the neighbourhood of Leignitz, and, I know not through what misunderstanding, had retreated. The Emperor spoke to me of the immediate necessity of a diversion, and told me that it was with this object that he was uniting these four army corps, including my own, under my orders. He instructed me to advance rapidly with them, and threaten Breslau and the outlets of Bohemia into Silesia.

I immediately returned to my corps, and we started without delay. We met some cavalry near Goldberg, and a brush that ensued was disadvantageous to us; notwithstanding the efforts of Generals Reiset and Audenarde, my horse gave way. I hastened to rally them, and put myself at their head to lead a charge. I started them, and believed myself followed, when the enemy's cavalry came to meet me; as I knew that my men had retreated, I could do nothing but retreat too.

My infantry debouched, and passed through a deep ravine. General Meunier was beginning to form a square, which at that moment bore a striking resemblance in shape to an egg. Seeing me pursued and hard pressed, he proposed that I should join him, I refused, and passed near him. The enemy did not expose themselves to his fire ; they were only anxious to mask their own retreat. We followed them eagerly, but were obliged to draw rein to give General Souham, who was commanding Ney's corps, and General Sebastiani time to come up.

The former received orders to leave the point where he was and make for Jauer, and to turn the enemy's right, while I made a front attack upon them at the Katzbach; General Lauriston commanded my right. General Sebastiani arrived, driving before him a strong detachment of cavalry, that had become placed between two fires. It escaped us, however, by a rapid flank movement.

It had been steadily raining ever since the previous day.

From the heights whence the enemy retired we thought we could make out the leading columns of General Souham's army; I ordered some squadrons and light artillery to make a reconnaissance, and meanwhile I went myself to the right of my line at some distance away, and told Lauriston to send some light troops across the Katzbach to feel the strength of the enemy upon his left. These orders were all clearly given, and yet not one of them was properly carried out. General Souham, for instance, who had received his early in the day, failed to execute the movement intended to turn the enemy's right. His corps marched behind Sebastiani's cavalry, which were still advancing to the heights, although I had simply ordered a few squadrons forward merely for reconnoitring purposes. It was on returning from my right wing that I learnt these counter-movements. The enemy, whose centre was rapidly retreating, but who were not uneasy for their right, retired, and I saw their artillery coming into position.

Among other movements, the great fault was committed on our side of taking a number of guns to the heights. The ground was already soaked, and they could only be moved with extreme difficulty, I ordered most of them to come down, but the road was encumbered with other guns, and with the cavalry who were going up. I instantly foresaw what would happen, and, as a precautionary measure, sent forward a division of infantry to protect the two bodies on the plateau. The rain still continued; the men could not use their muskets. I went down in person and freed the base of the hill. The road was not more than twelve or fifteen feet wide; it was impossible to turn, the only thing to be done was to let all those who had started gain the summit, turn there, and come down again ; and that took time.

While we were in this dilemma, the enemy deployed a large body of cavalry, protected by the artillery, and the infantry followed in columns. I had no news of General Souham, I did not even know if he had received my orders; the movements of the enemy were proof positive that, if he had received them, he had done nothing to put them into execution. Without his corps I could do nothing, much less give battle, although the enemy were already calling this affair by that name. Meanwhile, Lauriston, yielding a little on his left, crossed the river with a portion of his troops, and made a charge with all his cavalry.

In the centre our guns, sunk in the mire up to the axles, could not be moved; the artillery soldiers and gunners unharnessed them, and brought back the horses ; the enemy dared not descend. I have already said that the infantry could make no use of their weapons; posted on the slope of the hill, they were safe from the attacks of the cavalry. Then the front column of Souham's corps came up to make bad worse, and to still further encumber General Sebastiani's position. The latter was in despair at the loss of his guns. Souham stammered out some reasons why he had failed to operate upon the points I had indicated.

It was getting late ; the rain fell unceasingly, the ground was soaked, the ravines were filling, the streams overflowing; in such a disheartening state of affairs I ordered a retreat to Goldberg. A night march under such circumstances occasioned great disorder ; the rain never ceased. Lauriston was anxious to take the road by which he had crossed the mountains. I remarked that it would most likely be impracticable; he insisted and I yielded, the more readily that the continuity of our retreat would thereby be rendered easier. But what I had suspected proved to be the case; he found the roads flooded, and was compelled to retreat. One of his divisions flanked him, receiving orders to follow such a direction as would eventually bring about its junction with him and us ; we had to protect Lauriston's line of communications. At one very bad place several carriages were driven off the road, and got into the fields, where they remained, mine among others. I came up at this moment ; the ammunition waggons were unloaded so that they might be more easily moved, but nevertheless we lost some. We gained a fairly sheltered place, where we posted the cavalry.

Near there we expected to meet General Lauriston's covering division that had flanked his corps; it was not to be seen ; inquiries and searches were instituted, but there was still no news of it. All the troops were marching in disarray, wet to the skin, and, as Lauriston's and my corps were retiring on Löwenberg, we learnt that the bridge over the Bober had been dismantled, as the river had overflowed, and thus that our means of passage was cut off. In consequence of the floods, which were out in all directions, I was unable to communicate with Souham or Sebastiano, who were retiring upon Bunzlau, where there was a wooden bridge already very rickety; the engineers did their utmost to preserve it.

I waited four-and-twenty hours for Lauriston's division ; the cavalry sent me word that they could no longer hold the position where I had posted them, and their searches for the division had been fruitless. Meanwhile, although water covered the road leading to Bunzlau, along which Souham and Sebastiani were marching, a rumour spread among the troops that the road was practicable, as there was only water on it up to the knees; thereupon, without orders, they started off in confusion, as it was impossible to restrain them, I therefore let them go. I was compelled to recall the . cavalry, and to abandon the wandering division, convinced that it would find its own way out of the difficulty somehow; but I afterwards had the grief of learning that, owing to the slowness of the General in command [General Puthod] it had been obliged to surrender. .

The rain had ceased, and the sun reappeared; we made a forced march, and eventually reached Bunzlau, where I found Generals Souham and Sebastiani. A large portion of their corps had crossed the bridge, as the two others had done, and continued a disorderly march to Bautzen ; I sent orders to them to rally there. I could not gauge our losses ; with the exception of the artillery on the heights of Jauer, and the little division, they were inconsiderable. Having rallied all the troops, I took up my position. I had sent a report of all these circumstances to Dresden. The Emperor, to whom the loss naturally appeared great, imagined that it was greater even than it was ; he expected to find the troops demoralized and in disorder, and was agreeably surprised at finding them reunited and in good spirits.

The enemy had followed us, but on seeing our position appeared unwilling to risk an attack. The Emperor gave them no alternative. Having arrived with his reserves and his Guard, and saying nothing to me except that my news to him had been bad, he ordered me to advance and attack. We were soon ready, and marched forward eagerly; the enemy were driven back by our cavalry, which had been placed for the time under the command of Murat; but they made a good stand on the mountain of Hochchellenberg.

While we were attacking them there, the Emperor, seeing General Sebastiani near me, came towards us, and addressed him in the most violent language; I was indignant, and showed it. His complaint against the General was not the loss of his artillery on the plateau at Jauer, but that of his last cannon. Sebastiani, as I then learned from the Emperor, had sent him, without informing me, a private report; he interrogated the aide-de-camp who brought this report, pressed him with questions, and was told by him that his General, who had only one gun left, which he feared to lose, had sent it on with the baggage waggons, which, by another misfortune, had fallen into the enemy's hands. The Emperor added that the loss of artillery was the fortune of war; but that what irritated him was the seizure of that particular piece, seeing that artillery was provided for the protection of the troops, and not to be defended by baggage waggons. I warmly and heartily stood up for Sebastiani. The Emperor departed, leaving the command to me, with orders to follow the enemy,

Sebastiani was furious, and with reason, for he had not been spared even in presence of his own men. He wished to blow his brains out, cause himself to be killed, or send in his resignation. With great trouble I succeeded in calming him.

The enemy rapidly retreated, and our pursuit did not tarry. They crossed the river Queiss, which I left between us ; as fresh reinforcements reached them they tried to turn us. My orders were not to expose myself to any serious action; in my turn, therefore, I retired, but slowly; we thus continued alternately advancing and retreating. They also did not seem very anxious to attack, unless they could feel certain of getting the best of it; but as they displayed numerous forces, I fell back to within a few leagues of Dresden. We were very badly off for provisions and forage. The detachments which I was compelled to send out to search the villages were often obliged to come to blows, and soldiers who went out singly generally fell into the hands of the enemy. We were thus being slowly undermined, but the moment was not far off at which decisive operations would put a limit to this state of things; the allies were preparing for it.

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