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Recollections of Marshal Macdonald
Chapter 23
Marshal Augereau—Passage of the Saale—At Erfurt—Plain .Speaking —Arrival at Gelnhausen—Discouragement—In Hanau Woods— Issue from the Woods—Entry into Hanau.


THE next day, October 20, at dawn, we started on our march towards the Saale. About 800 or 900 men, the remains of my army corps, had been rallied, and with these I marched. As we were without artillery or carriages, while the roads were encumbered with them, we marched along very easily. We crossed the river by a covered bridge, and I encamped for the night on the opposite side. I met Marshal Augereau, and asked him for an explanation of the order brought to me from the Emperor by General Girardin to send a division to his support, while I was bearing the brunt of so severe, a combat in the suburbs of Leipsic, and, further, why nobody had been found in the place named. He replied with an oath :

'That idiot does not know what he is about! Have you not already noticed that ? Have you not observed that he has completely lost his head in these recent events, and in the catastrophe by which they have been followed ? The coward ! He abandoned and was prepared to sacrifice us all ; but do you imagine that I am fool enough to let myself be killed or made prisoner for the sake of a Leipsic suburb? You should have done as I did, and have gone away !'

That was all I could get out of him.

The next morning we started again on the road we met the provision waggons belonging to the Imperial Guard. For myself I had not a morsel of bread. I asked for some. The inspector or commissary in charge of the waggons made difficulties.

' Your carriages are lost,' I said, ' and will fall a prey to the enemy. Distribute at once your food and provisions to the troops around you.'

I at last obtained five or six loaves from him, which I divided among my officers.

We had to recross the Saale. A slender bridge had been thrown across for the infantry, who precipitated themselves on to it in crowds, and caused it to give way. Nobody took command. I spent at least two hours in trying to re-establish order, and at last crossed over myself without having succeeded. It was then between two and four o'clock in the afternoon; I was told that the principal headquarters were in a village hard by. I saw the Emperor in front of a house, reclining in a chair. He did not appear to see me. The Master of the Horse (Caulaincourt) beckoned me in, and gave me a loaf of bread, a chicken, and a bottle of wine. I had not broken my fast, and received these refreshments with avidity and gratitude.

The Prince Major-General told me that he had sent me orders to continue my march, and that a little farther on I should find a broken bridge, which was being repaired; I went thither. I was alone with a groom. My officers had crossed the Saale pell-mell when I betook myself to headquarters for further orders; they thought I was going to return. I found a company of pontonniers and sappers at work; men on foot and led horses could pass, but not carriages. These men had been eating some broth, and I asked if they had any left.

'Yes,' they replied, and brought me some. I dipped some bread into it, and ate it greedily.

After this light repast I examined the place, and saw that no precautions had been taken to cover the bridge under repair. It was visible from the slope of a range of mountains, at the summit of which the enemy could place artillery and blow it to pieces, and that of course happened.

I again crossed in order to see if I could discover their number, and some of our skirmishers were sent in their direction. At the first gunshot the Emperor crossed the frail little bridge used by the workmen, and I saw him going away at a rapid trot on the other side. A column of our troops came at last to cover the principal bridge; before their front rank reached it I crossed it once more, and went to headquarters.

I did not know what had become of my little troop and my officers. I therefore remounted my horse, and followed the marching troops. It was now quite dark, and, as the road was blocked, we gained a bank that ran near it at the risk of breaking our necks by falling into the ravines or ruts; at length we reached the place where the headquarters were established. As I passed the Emperor's house, Caulaincourt recognized me, and begged me to come in and dine with the staff—they were just going to sit down; I accepted.

The next morning a small advance-guard was collected for me; the enemy were scouring the country. Late that night we reached Erfurt, The town, occupied by our troops, possessed a strong castle; General d'Alton was in command; but the gates were shut, as disorder was feared from arrivals late at night, though they did not escape it even on the following day. Stores of all kinds had been formed there ; to save time and formalities they were burst open and ransacked.

We had been there for some hours, when the Emperor sent for me. I went to the castle, and first saw the King of Naples, who cautioned me that the Emperor's intention was to order me to find a strong defensive position, where he could remain for five or six days.

'You had better find a weak one,' added Murat with an oath, ' or he will not rest till he has ruined himself and us too.'

'Never fear,' I replied. 'Even if the position be excellent, I will tell him my mind about our situation.'

I was ushered in. The Emperor gave me the commission of which Murat had warned me.

' It is out of the question to make a reconnaissance at this moment,' I said, 'because there is such a thick fog that it is impossible to see fifteen yards ahead. But, Sire, I continued, 'are you in earnest in talking of remaining here?'

' The men are tired,' said the Emperor, ' and the enemy pursuing slowly. We must give them a rest.'

' No doubt that would be advisable, or even necessary under other circumstances,' I replied; ' but in our present state of disorganization, or demoralization, as I may as well call things by their proper names, we shall gain nothing by it. We must get to the Rhine as fast as possible. The majority of the men are already in disorder, and making their way thither.'

' But yet I am told that a considerable number have been stopped, and fifteen battalions formed.'

' You are being flattered and deceived,' I said with firmness. ' Exactly the same thing happened after the death of Turenne and the rout of his army. The courtiers told Louis XIV. that the troops were coming back across the Rhine in such numbers that, counting them all, there were now more men than there had ever been in the army! Louis XIV. himself made this judicious remark. Our men are going away pell-mell ; all our efforts to stop them have been vain—their instinct urges them towards the Rhine. No one amongst us is ignorant of the defection of the King of Bavaria, nor of his treaty with the allies, nor of the movement that General Wrede is making by forced marches to cut off our retreat between this and Frankfort ; and that, clearly, is why they are pursuing so slowly - to retard our march, and give Wrede time to get in our rear. If he reaches Gelnhausen ' (a place that I already knew), ' it is very doubtful that we shall be able to dislodge him—if he has had time to establish himself, that is; and he will have plenty if your Majesty remains here for two or three days. You can now only count upon the Guard, and have to beware lest they he carried away by the force of example, as in the last campaign.'

All these reflections were self-evident.

The Emperor's attitude was one of profound meditation. Three other persons were in his room, and they had ceased writing in order to listen—two of them were, I think, his private secretaries ; the third, the Duke of Bassano, placed his pen between his teeth, and folded his arms. He kept his eyes fixed upon me, and displayed astonishment at hearing, for the first time, his Majesty addressed with such freedom and outspokenness. I stopped to hear the Emperor's decision. He at length broke silence, saying that he recognized the justice of my observations, thanked me for my honesty, and would reflect upon what I had said, but that, meanwhile, he wished me to make the reconnaissance.

I left, and returned some hours later to report that the fog had not lifted, which was true, and that consequently I had only been able to observe what was immediately before my eyes—'namely, that the neighbourhood of the town was very steep and uneven. Thereupon he said :

' Very good ; we will start to-morrow,'

' Even that will be too late,' I answered; ' we ought to start at once. The men are continually leaving laden with booty.'

Nobody had attempted to stop the pillage. We had no choice but to remain where we were till next day.

On reaching Geinhausen, I found the position occupied, fortunately weekly, by about a thousand men. The Kintzig covered it, and the bridge had already been broken, but so hurriedly that the beams were still floating about. Some of the enemy's pickets came near us. Many isolated men had stopped; I formed them into companies, and made up a battalion. The enemy had no cannon at this point, and with mine I drove them away from the river.

As soon as the bridge was sufficiently repaired, I ordered an attack. The position might have been ambushed. The enemy were so weak that they made no effort to keep us back; but if they had had time to establish themselves, I do not know if we should have managed to dislodge them. Later on they received reinforcements, principally of cavalry; we skirmished all day, continually advancing towards a village, which we reached as night was drawing on. There was a castle in the place, and the Emperor came thither to take up his quarters, although he had already fixed them in a little village in the rear. Everything, therefore, had to be repacked, and the waggons reloaded for the move. In the village just mentioned, there was only one uncomfortable house ; while in the place where I was, and whither Napoleon came, there was a castle, uninhabited, but furnished.

I received information that the Bavarian army was posted at Hanau. Its strength was unknown; but it had begun to arrive the previous evening, and troops had been coming in that same day. There had only been just time, therefore, to send a detachment to Geinhausen, and some troops of cavalry to other points from Hanau. I had this information from a person who had come thence that very day, and who had been an eye-witness of what he told me.

The Emperor then sent for me, and inquired whether he were in safety, as his Guard had not yet come up,

' I cannot answer for it,' I replied. ' We only arrived after dark, shortly before you; and I do not even know whether all my troops followed me.'

' Are we, then, with the outposts ?'


He kept me to dinner, and sent for the person who had arrived that evening from Hanau, and whose words I had repeated. He liked to ask questions for himself, but he learned no more than I had told him. He declared that the Bavarians would not stand up against him. The next day proved him mistaken.

At daybreak I started on my march. A short distance away we met the Bavarian outposts, supported by a strong advance-guard. I had to stop and wait till our cavalry came up, and crossed sabres with the enemy. We pushed them back into the woods of Hanau, whither we followed them. A fusillade began which my handful of troops could not stand; I made them retire into shelter several times. I also ordered the cavalry to charge in order to support my infantry. This state of things had lasted for some hours, when, wishing to see what was taking place on the high- road, I ventured out with some of my staff. As soon as we appeared we were greeted by a hot fire of cannon and musketry which compelled us to withdraw hastily into the wood. I had, however, had time to glance at the enemy's position, and what I could see of it was not very encouraging, nor calculated to inspire my troops with confidence.

All my messages to the Emperor to warn him of the resistance we had met with, of the reduction of our small means (of which the enemy, fortunately, could not judge, as they were scattered about the wood), and of the urgent necessity for reinforcements, remained unnoticed. I was much impelled to go to him in person ; but I feared that if I left the men would become discouraged—my presence kept them together. As we were not more than a quarter of a league from headquarters, I at length made up my mind; and, in order to divert observation, ordered a fresh charge of cavalry into the wood, and then started off at full gallop. On reaching the Emperor, I spoke to him very energetically about the position of affairs.

' What can I do?' he said indifferently. ' I give orders, and no one heeds them. I wished to assemble all the waggons at one point under a cavalry escort. Well, nobody came to do it!'

' I can quite believe it,' I returned. ' these men have experience and instinct, and rightly presume that the road by which you wish them to communicate is closed to us. But consider that our situation is no ordinary one. You must force a passage, Sire, and send forward, without an instant's delay, all the troops at your disposal. Why have not the Guard come up ? We shall be utterly done for if they don't come immediately.'

' I can't help it,' he answered dejectedly.

Formerly at a sign, a gesture, a word, all had trembled around him, or he would have known the reason why!

However, the Emperor summoned the Major-General, who declared that he .also had given orders. They were repeated, the assembly was sounded, and I went away with a promise that a portion of the Guard would come and place them- selves under my orders. I announced this news, and it encouraged the soldiers a little. The firing and the short charges continued; the Guard did not arrive—impatience reappeared. At length the bearskins of the Old Guard came in view ; I pointed them out, and said that this troop would take our places while we rested.

Four battalions of chasseurs arrived; the General in command of them asked for my orders; I caused half of them to be deployed as sharpshooters, flanked by companies, and the two others in line to support them. They advanced to the scene of action. The mere sight of these veterans made the enemy retire from the wood; but it was still difficult to get clear of it, or even to line the fringe. The enemy continued to fire volleys of grapeshot and shells. We kept our position ; that was a great deal. The Emperor came up, followed by his Guard and some other troops ; he asked for information, which I gave him, reckoning the enemy's force as at least 30,000 men. .

' Can we reconnoitre their position without danger ?' he asked.

' Not without danger; we must risk it; I have already done it once.' ' Very good ; come along.'

And away we went. Just as we were starting a shell burst close to him without hurting anyone. Straightway he stopped, dismounted from his horse, and from that moment till the evening it was impossible to get him out of the wood. He ordered General Drouot to discover a position on the right of the road where he could post the artillery of the Guard. The personal danger was extreme, but this brave General, as modest as he was distinguished, never gave it a thought. In order to cause a diversion at this point, the Emperor ordered his cavalry to debouch on to the high-road ; the grenadiers à cheval were in front. They charged, but were brought back and protected by a regiment of ' guards of honour,' composed of young men of good family, who were making their debut, but who showed great courage. The grenadiers rallied behind this regiment, while the dragoons swept forward and repulsed the enemy with great success, gallantly breaking their squares.

General Drouot had succeeded, not without heavy loss, in establishing his batteries, and others were afterwards mounted at other points. We had also succeeded in reaching the fringe of the wood; the enemy were retreating in every direction, and recrossing the river; but they still maintained their defence of Hanau, and there was still on our right a strong battery, which we could not succeed in silencing, and which was doing us considerable damage. We might have obtained great advantages from the retreat of the Bavarians, but as the Emperor spent the whole day in the wood he could see nothing, and everyone acted as he pleased without any concert. There seemed to be an idea that we had done enough in reaching the river and driving back the enemy; and no one observed, apparently, that, situated as we were, it was most important for us to reach the other side, and that, until Hanau had been stormed, our communications with France must continue interrupted.

The day was drawing to an end, and the battery just mentioned caused us great inconvenience; the shooting was very straight, and was aimed at the point where the wood debouched into the high-road. I was there in person.¹

Nansouty's cavalry came through the wood. I asked him to charge and carry the battery; he refused, alleging the fatigue of his men.

' If you will only make an effort, then,' I said but received only the same answer.

I was urging him with some considerable heat, when one of the Emperor's aides-de-camp, General Flahaut, chanced to pass. Seeing me very excited, he inquired what was the matter.

' Look here,' I said ; 'a slight effort would secure us that battery. If the Emperor were here, something would be done—duty, at least, if nothing more ! Situated as we are here, it is of vital consequence to sweep aside every obstacle and to force our way through.'

' Would you like to see the Emperor ?' he said, ' I will bring him to you.'

' Do, if you can,' I answered.

It was now late, and instead of coming himself, he sent orders to Nansouty to act. The latter moved at last. As soon as the enemy saw him, they retreated, which would have been a boon to us a few hours earlier.

I had rallied the remains of my division on the outskirts of the wood. We were at a short distance from Hanau; a few troops advanced thither, but stopped just out of range of a hot fusillade.

We had been at ease for some time, when I saw a shapeless column, preceded by a lighted torch, issue from the wood and defile along the high-road. I was told that a report was spread, no one knew how, of the evacuation of Hanau; and as the Emperor was sure of good quarters there, he had started without any further information. The torch was borne before him. All that had been in the wood, troops, carriages, artillery, led horses, etc., were following him in disorder.

I called for my horse in order to head him and warn him of his mistake; but the mass that widened out as it issued from the wood prevented me from passing. I also had to ride carefully along the edge of a ditch by the roadside; however, a few yards farther on I was able to cross it, and hastened on for a moment, so as to come up with the head of the column.

Suddenly a few shots were heard; the column stopped, and I saw the torch take a pace to the right and describe a curve retiring into the wood, whence the shapeless and ever increasing mass was still pouring and pressing on the head thus suddenly arrested. I found myself caught in the mob, unable to advance or retire, without having succeeded in joining the Emperor. I tried to recross the ditch and to regain the edge of the wood, feeling very sorry that I had ever quitted it. At length I lost my temper, and ordered my bodyguard to force a passage for me sword in hand. They at once obeyed, crying :

' Make way ! Make way !'

One voice alone could be heard in the crowd asking ; ' What guards are those creating such a disturbance ?'

It was Count Daru, Commissary-General of the army. I did not feel called upon to answer, or to make myself known. I succeeded in making my way back to the place I had left, leaving the mass to disentangle itself as best it could. Had the enemy known what was going on, and made a sortie from Hanau, the disorder must have been even greater, and their losses immense ; happily, their only idea was to retreat.

In the middle of the night the Emperor sent me orders to collect a battery of howitzers, and to fire on the town; the enemy did not reply, whence we concluded that they were unarmed. They moved out at break of day, and our troops occupied the town.

Scarcely had this news penetrated into the wood, when the disorderly mass once more made its way out with no less confusion than on the previous evening. The Emperor himself passed, and gave me orders to relieve the troops in the town, promising that I in turn should be relieved by General Bertrand. I had not perceived until then that all the soldiers remaining to me had left, and had joined themselves to the living torrent that was flowing towards Frankfort, whither the Emperor was going in person. I sent after them, and recovered about 150 men, whom I brought into Hanau to replace a troop not much larger, of which General Souham had command. I found him in a house in the suburbs; he left, and I entered the town. The enemy were not far off on the other side of the river. The place had an enclosure, but could not resist an attack.

Just as I was sitting down to breakfast, Tuilier, commanding the engineers, whom I had sent to the top of the steeple, came and whispered to me that the enemy were advancing.

' Go back again,' I said, ' and let me know when they are near the gates.'

' They are not far off now,' he replied; ' and you have barely time to retire.'

The fusillade commenced as he was speaking. I left my breakfast, therefore, and, calling the chief officer of my little group of men, told him to hold firm, and that he would be relieved immediately. As I was quitting the town I met General Bertrand, who had orders to relieve us; he asked how many troops he should take in with him.

' All you have will not be enough,' I replied, and continued my journey.

¹ There is an accidental glimpse of the Duke of Tarentum at the Battle of Hanau in General Marbot's ' Memoirs' (Eng. edit., vol. ii,, p. 431). 'I keenly regretted the loss of my trumpeter,' says Baron de Marbot, ' who was beloved by the entire regiment no less for his courage than for his general behaviour. He was the son of a professor at the College of Toulouse, had been through his course there, and took great pleasure in spouting Latin, An hour before his death, observing the majority of trees in the forest of Hanau—whose spreading branches formed a kind of roof—-were beeches, he quoted the lines from Virgil commencing:

' " Tityre, tu patulæ, recubans sub tegmine fagi."

Marshal Macdonald, who happened to pass at the moment, laughed heartily, exclaiming, " There's a little chap whose memory isn't disturbed by his surroundings. It is surely the first time that anyone has recited Virgil under the fire of the enemy's guns !" '
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