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Recollections of Marshal Macdonald
Chapter 24
At Mayence—What Caulaincourt said—Conversation with the Emperor —Want of Money—Evacuation of Arnheim—Surprise of Neuss— The Enemy cross the Rhine—Advance into France.


IT was only at Frankfort that I found the scattered remnants of my division ; we were also rejoined by the detachment I had left at Hanau. I had orders to continue my march to Mayence, which I reached that night. The bridge of boats had been so severely tried by the constant succession of troops, waggons, and artillery, that two pontoons had nearly given way. It had therefore been necessary to stop it from being used, and to close the gates of the tête-de-pont. My chief of the staff, who had preceded me, had posted a notice on the gates that all who belonged to my corps were to betake themselves to (—) and go into cantonments there.

The Emperor sent for me next day, and kept me to dinner. He reviewed all the circumstances and events of the campaign, dealing at length with the bad faith of the allies, especially of Austria at Prague, during the negotiations of the Congress..

Caulaincourt, his Master of the Horse, and Count Narbonne, his aide-de-camp, had, however, told me that the entire settlement had been in his hands , that , in reality , he ought to have given up some conquests or combinations, but that " The name of the place is omitted in the original manuscript. he could have retained Italy, the Rhine as a boundary, and the Protectorate of the Helvetian Confederation. That Napoleon had been pressed to consent to this, and warned that, in case of refusal, Austria would make common cause with Russia and Prussia. She made no secret of the fact that she was bound by a treaty, which had been obvious for some months past, as the allies, beaten at the beginning of the campaign, had retired into Silesia, to the foot of the mountains of Bohemia, ready to enter if they were driven to it, and this they could not have done had Austria preserved her neutrality. They would have taken good care not to risk having to surrender at the foot of those mountains, as all their communications would have been cut off if they had lost a decisive battle. Moreover, had they not been certain of Austria's co-operation, they would have recrossed the Oder, near Breslau, in their retreat from Jauer.

Prudence recommended a compromise, hut the Emperor, blind, and relying upon his ascendancy at the Court of Vienna, which he believed was further strengthened by his position as son-in-law, had obstinately refused to consent to the cession of Holland and the Hanse Towns, and to renounce the Protectorate of the Confederation of the Rhine. As soon as the armistice was denounced, he authorized his plenipotentiaries to make these concessions ; those of the allies, however, replied that it was now too late, and that the question must be settled by the sword.

Why,' I inquired, ' did not your Majesty consent sooner? The army earnestly desired it; the honour of your arms was repaired; your principal leaders begged it of you, both in the name of the army and of France, so sorely distressed. I myself ventured to point out the dangers of the situation to you. I represented the difficulties France had had in fighting against the Emperor of Russia and the King of Prussia ; what, then, would it be when Austria, Sweden, and other lesser States leagued themselves with them ? Our losses, I admit, had been somewhat repaired, but how? By recruits who were little more than children, by young untrained horses, already worn out by long forced marches. The renewal of hostilities would once more interrupt our communications ; any serious reverse must infallibly ruin us; we had neither provisions nor ammunition ; and, above all, we had to avoid discouragement, to keep up the spirits of the men.'

This reasoning had produced no effect upon him at the time of the negotiations, but now he admitted it was just. ' I did not agree to these concessions,' he said, ' because I feared that the allies would become more exacting, and would demand still more.'

' But in that case, Sire,' I replied, ' why did you, when unfortunately too late, end by consenting ? Had you done so earlier, you would have given proof of your desire for peace; France and the army would have been grateful to you, and perhaps would have made greater efforts to secure it. Moreover) all the preliminaries declared that, 'beyond these concessions, the Emperors would ask for nothing. You might have done more ; you might have freed yourself with honour from the canker which is destroying your old troops in Spain, and ruining your treasury, had you restored Spain to herself and her sovereign, and thereby displayed a moderation which must have struck France, your armies, and Europe.' ' Yes,' said he, ' that is true ) but now I must retain that country as compensation.'

During this conversation the bulletin of the allies upon the events at Leipsic was handed to him. Perhaps there was some exaggeration in their account, but I had to admit that, on the whole, it was but too true; they were intoxicated with their success, and not without reason.

Our situation was to France and Europe a striking proof of our reverses, of the terrible misfortunes we had already endured, and of those which threatened and must inevitably overwhelm us if peace, which of course could only be purchased by fresh concessions, did not speedily come to save the army and France. To these observations he replied that he was going to try to re-open the negotiations, but that he wished to keep the line of the Rhine, wherein I entirely agreed with him.

He informed me that I was to start for Cologne, and to take command of the line from Mayence to Wesel.

' With what troops ?' I asked. ' With what am I to defend a tract of such extent ?'

' I will send you some. They are coming in from all sides, and we are raising 300,000 men. You shall have eighty battalions and sixty squadrons. The enemy, hitherto concentrated, will be obliged to spread out, and we shall be strong at all their vulnerable points.'

He thought that the allies would be wearied, and would go into winter quarters on the right bank of the Rhine, thus leaving him time to reform and reinforce his armies; but in less than two months we were doomed to be disappointed.

Before we parted he asked me to tell him the amount of my personal losses during the campaign. I merely said that they were considerable, which was true; I had not even a clean shirt left. He said that he had no money at Mayence, but that he would send me an indemnity from Paris.

'I was rich,' he added, 'at the opening of the campaign in 1812. The armies were well provided, the men paid regularly, and I had left 400 000,000 francs [£16,000,000] in the cellars at the Tuileries, of which 300,000,000 [£12,000,000] came from the contributions levied in Prussia I drew out 340,000,000 [£13,600,000] to help France in reforming the army in 1813; I have only 60,000,000 [£2,400,000] left. It is very little, and I have so much to do with it!'

This was intended to convey to me that I should only get a very small share. In fact, he only sent me, while I was at Wesel, a draft upon Paris for 30,000 francs (£1,200). I had great difficulty afterwards in getting it cashed , but eventually Monsieur de la Bouillerie, manager of the Crown property, very kindly arranged it for me .

I wrote next day to your eldest sister to send me some linen to Cologne, whither I was going. Souham lent me his carriage, and I started that afternoon, finding my staff and my weak force at Hingen.

Night was drawing on. They made useless efforts to retain me, but I insisted on starting. The road was bad ; masters, men, postilions, everyone was asleep. We upset coming round a sharp curve recently cut in the rock, and, on leaving the carriage, unhurt, found with terror that we were within two feet of the edge of the Rhine. Had the horses advanced one step more, we must have infallibly perished in the river, after braving so many dangers, and I, in particular, having escaped the Elster. I reached Cologne without further accident, and was thence ordered on to Wesel and Nimeguen.

My command, on the right of the line, ended at Coblentz, but on the left extended to Arnheim. All our troops had recrossed the Rhine, and gone from Mayence to Wesel. This last place was strongly garrisoned, and General Bourke, the Governor, had orders to place all his troops at my disposal, but only to support my operations, without compromising the security of the place This General behaved very well to me; we reconnoitred outside, and decided that it would be safer not to advance.

I went to Nimeguen, where I had been garrisoned, while serving under Maillebois, at the beginning of my career ; I had had my quarters there after the siege during the winter of 1794-95. At that time we were victorious ; at the period I am now describing we were only acting on a very feeble defensive.

I made certain that the enemy were gathering round Arnheim, which we held with only a small force. The town was defended by a sort of entrenched camp, but there were no troops to occupy it. I decided upon evacuating the place, and upon recrossing the Leek and the Waal. I saw with my own eyes the enemy's preparations, and that we had not a moment to lose; orders were given, but very badly carried out. Instead of retiring during the night, they waited till the next day, and the enemy attacked at that very moment.

We had 400 or 500 men in the town, but neither collected together nor ready to leave. They were dispersed; the gate by which we were to quit was not even guarded, so much so that the gatekeeper, whether through bribery or treachery, locked it, disappeared with the keys, and ran away at the first gunshot The detachment, therefore, had to capitulate. The troops from without crossed the bridge without destroying it, not knowing the reason why the garrison did not evacuate the town. The enemy seized the opportunity, and followed, but hesitatingly, half-way across. The very fact of the garrison being shut up within the place stopped the enemy's chief forces, as they thought it was much stronger than it really was ; had it not been for that, they might have made it difficult for us to cross the Waal.

At Nimeguen there were two little armed Dutch boats. Fearing that they might commit some fresh act of treachery, and prevent the return of our troops, I ordered them to move down the river at once, without giving them a chance of learning what had happened. I thus succeeded in bringing across, without impediment, all the detachments that were still on the right bank.

I had opened communications with General Molitor, who commanded in the Province of Utrecht. I recalled him, and he crossed to the island of Bommel, whence he joined me with some more skeleton regiments. As I foresaw that we should ere long be compelled to withdraw from Nimeguen, I asked permission to evacuate at the same time Bois-le-Duc, Wesel, Venloo, and Maestricht ) but it was refused. While waiting for an answer to my despatch, I inquired of General .Bourke how long he would require to undermine and blow up the fortifications of Wesel, and to withdraw his garrison, supposing his instructions authorized him to carry out such an order if given by me. The question was simple; but it caused him such terror that his only answer to me was a request for an interview, but the events which followed prevented me from complying with it.

In asking for an authorization to evacuate these places, I was carrying out the plan of concentration that I had twice proposed under similar circumstances at the end of 1812 and 1813; but, in spite of the correctness of my views, experience had taught no lesson, and the garrisons were compelled to capitulate one after another. However, as we could look for no immediate succour, this system served to reinforce our fighting troops, and to weaken the enemy, who were obliged to leave garrisons in the places we evacuated.

I am aware that the other system has certain advantages —for example, that of detaining a large number of hostile troops by sieges or blockades, and of preserving resources and communications for one's self, if one can succeed in beating the enemy in the open field. But to obtain these advantages an army is a necessity; and when one has none, or nothing hut a few shattered remains, and it takes months to raise a fresh one, it is better to have recourse to evacuation. This is especially the case when the places are scattered—like Zamosc, Modlin, Pillau, and Dantzic—if one is driven back to this side of the Elbe, and like those on the Oder and the Elbe when one has to retire to the Rhine. In my opinion, it is much better to run the risk of being obliged to recommence sieges, and to have a movable army, than to be reduced to mere bundles (paquets) of men, which have to end by giving way, as happened to us at the end of each of our last campaigns.

I was told to stand firm ; but with such an extended area as I had under my command, and with such small means, I could only watch the Rhine, and not defend it. The enemy tried to cross at Düsseldorf, and surprised the little garrison of Neuss. I hastened thither, and on the way learnt that it was only a feint, and that the enemy had recrossed the river. They tried the same thing at several other points. All this was insignificant ; but it served to warn me to act with circumspection, so as not to run the risk of being cut off.

I received no further orders , and the events which crowded upon me obliged me to act with prudence. I withdrew slowly to the Meuse, reinforcing Wesel, Venloo, and Maestricht, when I learned that the enemy had opened the campaign, and definitely crossed the Rhine. They were advancing very rapidly, as they met no obstacles to speak of, they might even reach Liège before me. I hastened thither, and thence to Huy, Namur, and Mezières.

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