Campaign in FranceBombardment of
ChalonsEscape from Epernay Champaubert and
Chateau-ThierryCongress of Châtillon Surprise at
TroyesRetreat of the EnemyThe Emperor at ArcisDeparture of
THE Emperor rejoined the army at the first announcement
reaching him of the passage of the Rhine , but of all the levies and
reinforcements that had been announced with such a flourish, none ever reached
me. On paper , I was supposed to be in command of a force numbering from 50,000
to 60,000 men, whereas actually, with Molitor's division, which I brought with
me, I had not more than 3,000.
I was going to Verdun to join the Duke of Ragusa, who was in
command on the left of our line, when I received orders to come to Chalons,
whence I was sent to Vitry-on- the-Marne. A hostile force, 30,000 strong, was
already in the neighbourhood. I rallied my troops at the Chaussee, where I was
attacked, but very feebly, next morning. During the day, however, the enemy
made preparations to dislodge me. I held our position till night, when I
withdrew to Chalons. The evacuation of this place had already begun, but it
would take us at least twenty-four hours to finish emptying the magazines,
which were so precious to us.
The enemy appeared at break of day, and deployed in turn all
their forces, which I reckoned at 30,000 men. Prudence unquestionably compelled
me not to fight on such unequal terms, or not to expose Châlons ; but,
despite our utmost activity, the emptying of the magazines could not be
effected before the following night.
On the other hand, the General in command at Vitry, who had
2,000 or 2,500 men, sent me word that he was in a very critical
positionwithout victuals or means of defence; that he was already
invested on the right bank of the Marne, and that if he did not receive
immediate orders to retire, he would be constrained to surrender, and that we
should lose the garrison almost without striking a blow. I determined to send
him the orders he asked for, and to protect his march on the way to join us.
This was an additional reason for defending Châlons. My troops covered
the town, and did, in fact, defend it very courageously till nightfall, when
the firing ceased on either side.
General Yorck, who commanded at this point, had made up his
mind to occupy the place; he summoned me to yield or to evacuate it, otherwise
he would set it on fire. That would have been easily done, for many parts of
the town are old, and the houses built of wood.
Owing to some misunderstanding, his flag of truce was
admitted (although, according to my custom, I had renewed my prohibition), and
was brought to me. He was the Count of Brandenburg, a natural brother of the
King of Prussia, who in 1812 had arrived at Tilsit from Berlin a day or two
before the defection of the Prussian corps. This corps was the very one that I
had been fighting all day, and commanded by the same leader. I had hitherto
always treated this young man with consideration and politeness; he showed a
decided want of both to me in delivering his message.
' I have more respect for your character than you have
yourself,' I said, ' otherwise I would cause you to regret your impertinent
manner. I will not expose Châlons to the disorder attendant upon a
night-occupation, but I do not mind telling you that I shall evacuate it
to-morrow morning. Your General knows me well enough to be convinced that I
shall not allow myself to be intimidated by threats any more than by deeds.
That is all I have to say to you. Go.'
' We shall set fire to the town,' he replied.
' As you please,' I answered, and dismissed him.
On the previous day I had given orders that the bridge
should be mined, as also a triumphal arch that either gratitude or flattery had
raised to the Emperor at its extremity, on the left bank of the Marne. It was
not to be blown up except in case the mines failedwhich happenedso
as to obstruct the bridge, at least for artillery.
The threat of shelling the town was quickly put into
execution, and immediately spread consternation amongst the inhabitants. I had
made every preparation to extinguish the fire in the most exposed quarters. A
few houses were set alight, and I then witnessed a heart-breaking spectacle,
the authorities imploring me to evacuate the town, and part of the population
running hither and thither half clothed, uttering cries of despair, and cursing
the author of a war which had brought such desolation upon France, and to whom,
all the same, they had recently erected a triumphal arch.
I groaned at this pitiful sight; but my duty would not admit
of my yielding nor of compromising my troops and the general operations of the
army. The night was very severe; it was freezing hard, and the poor creatures
were half dressed. The women, their hair streaming and with bare feet, carried
about their babies in long clothes. I shall never forget it. The enemy,
observing that their fire produced no result, or perhaps for want of
ammunition, ceased it, and the inhabitants retired to their homes.
I evacuated the place in broad daylight, after ordering a
light to be set to the mines under the bridge; but they were badly laid, and
only shook it. I then exploded those under the triumphal arch, and, when it had
fallen, it made a sufficient obstacle to prevent an immediate entrance. The
enemy, seeing us prepared to oppose any attempt, refrained from making one all
My orders were to communicate with the Duke of Ragusa, who
was supposed to be at Arcis-sur-Aube. I sent my cavalry there, but on the way
they met that of the enemy, and fell back upon Etoges. The garrison of Vitry,
which had retired unhindered, was already there. A portion of my corps
accompanied me thither, while the rest made for Jaalons. I thus covered the two
main roads between Châlons and Paris.
On reaching Champtrix, I learned from some prisoners and
from the inhabitants that part of Blücher's army was advancing to
Montmirail. As this communication, therefore, was closed to me, I went across
country to Epernay, where all my troops reassembled ; but as it was
possible nay, probablethat the enemy would reach La Ferte-sous-
Jouarre before me, if I did not take rapid steps to prevent it, I made a forced
march. I had halted and slept at Epernay, and, on continuing my route, left my
rear-guard behind to impede the enemy when they quitted Châlons. The
egress from Epernay is narrow, and may be defended for a considerable time.
I stopped at a village among the hills on the left of the
road; but scarcely was I settled there when I was told that my rear-guard,
which, however, had not been pressed, was retreating, and that the enemy's
vedettes had already reached the village where I was breakfasting. I had but
just time to throw myself across my horse and gallop through the vineyards to
catch up my troops, who had marched on some distance. Had it not been for the
peasant's timely warning, I should have been taken while at table. I escaped
with nothing worse than a fright.
The General in command of the rear-guard had been frightened
by false reports. I slackened his march, and made him face about each time the
enemy seemed to come too close to us. We took up our position and rested for a
few hours at Dormans, whence we continued our march towards Chateau-Thierry,
which had already been passed by my front column. The important thing was to
reach La Ferte-sous-Jouarre, where the two roads meet, and to pass the night
I learned, on arrival, that the Russian General Sacken was
at Bussiere. Had I been a few hours later I should have had to retreat to
Chateau-Thierry and make for Soissons, which would have separated me from the
army and have left Meaux uncovered, and from thence the enemy would have met
with no obstacle till they reached Paris. My rear-guard still followed me. They
had orders to destroy the bridge at Chateau-Thierry, but it was only partially
done. My advance-guard took up their position at La Ferte, on the heights above
the road to Montmirail, where they were soon after attacked.
We skirmished all day upon a ground favourable to that kind
of defence, which allowed time for my rear-guard to come up; they were somewhat
pressed, and only passed through La Ferte. I did not know where the principal
headquarters were, as I could obtain no answer to my frequent representations
upon my situation. I lost ground towards the evening, and, fearing simultaneous
attacks from the two corps that were debouching by the two roads, I recrossed
the Marne next day at Trilport, where the bridge had been mined, in spite of
the opposition attempted by the inhabitants.
I had strictly forbidden that the bridge should be blown up
without my express orders, and, as I wished to be on the spot, I remained where
I was and slept upon a heap of faggots piled up there to be embarked, instead
of going on to Meaux.
Utterly fatigued and worn out, I had fallen asleep near a
large fire, when I was suddenly startled by a violent detonation. Valaze,
General of Engineers, who was beside me, ran to the scene of the explosion. It
seemed as if we were predestined to misfortune. Owing to some misunderstanding,
a match had been laid to the mines; some of them had not exploded, but the
bridge was so broken and shaken as to scarcely hold together, and it would have
been too dangerous not to complete the work of destruction, the more so as a
simple picket would now suffice to guard it, and as there was another bridge
intact at Meaux.
I kept the Emperor carefully informed of my march, and of
the circumstances that had brought me to this point. I also sent word to the
King of Naples, who was commanding in Paris.
The alarm there was very great, and naturally so, for we
were now only eleven leagues distant, and the great allied army was marching
upon Nogent, Bray, and Montereau. The Emperor, informed by my despatches, made
a very bold flank march, and, falling unexpectedly upon Bliicher at Champaubert
and Chateau-Thierry, gained a great victory.
I had received orders to direct my cavalry so as to assist
these attacks, and, although it had to make a long round by Meaux, it arrived
in time to take part in the success; then it was that I bitterly regretted the
bridge at Trilport. Unfortunately these victories had no result save that of
prolonging our agony; they raised the spirits of the men, but they thinned and
weakened our ranks daily.
While these events were in progress on the Marne, the main
army of the enemy had seized the three places mentioned above on the Seine. It
therefore became necessary to let go our hold, and hasten with all speed to
cover Paris, reassemble our scattered remnants, and give battle.
My troops were sent to a point between Brie-Comte- Robert
and Guignes. While they were marching I rushed to Paris to put some business
matters in order, little thinking that within a short space the capital would
fall into the hands of the allies. I promptly rejoined my troops. After the
reassembly was made and the attack ordered I was sent to Bray, where I found
the bridge destroyed: the contest was confined to a sharp cannonade.
We were more fortunate at Montereau. The enemy had taken up
a position on the right bank, where they were speedily attacked. One of our
corps, repulsed at the first onset, was quickly supported by others who threw
themselves forward gallantly, broke the enemy's ranks, and put them to flight.
They recrossed the Seine in the utmost disorder, and were eagerly pursued, and
I was sent for,
The allies retired beyond the Aube. On the way thither they
sent parlementaires to propose an. armistice. Generals were appointed on either
side to treat. This armistice, the enemy stated, should be the preliminary of
the peace that was being so slowly negotiated at Chalons. I know not whether
either side were of good faith in this congress, but assuredly the allies were
Lusigny, between Troyes and Vendoeuvre, had been decided
upon for the settlement of the armistice. The allies have since declared that
the territory between the Seine and the Aube had been neutralized while the
articles of agreement were being drawn up; but, whether by a misunderstanding
or bad faith, the Emperor ordered the Seine to be crossed at Troyes, and sent
me to Châtillon.
The negotiators of the armistice, finding themselves
surrounded by fire, broke up the conferences. The Congress at Châtillon
was alarmed at my approach, and the Duke of Vicenza, the principal French
representative at the Congress, sent to me imploring me not to advance ; if I
did, all the foreign ministers threatened to retire. I stopped, and the Emperor
approved my compliance.
While we were marching towards Bar-sur-Aube, he was informed
that Blücher's army, which he had beaten and routed at Champaubert and
Chateau-Thierry, was retracing its steps. He started with all his reserves to
fight them again, leaving orders with me, as the senior Marshal, to take
command of the troops he left behind him (that is to say, those of the Marshal
Duke of Reggio, and of General Gerard, which were as weakened as my own), to
cross the Seine in person, and put myself in line with these two corps on the
Aube. I did this immediately.
I marched through a very difficult country near Essoyes, and
took La Ferte; but while I was seeking to communicate with Bar-sur-Aube, where
the Duke of Reggio ought to have been, some detachments of the enemy showed
themselves at a short distance off, beyond the woods belonging to the ancient
abbey at Clairvaux, I immediately concluded that the two corps had been
compelled to retire from Bar, but yet I could hear no cannon which could force
them to such a step. I hastily summoned the troops who had carried La Ferte,
and, as my communications on the left with them were thus cut off, and knowing
of no other place save Bar-sur-Seine at which I could cross the river, I made a
forced march throughout the night. I only reached the place a quarter of an
hour before the enemy's advance cavalry. I at once sent news to Troyes, whither
had gone the staff of the two corps.
Marshal Oudinot explained to me the position of affairs, and
the reasons for his retreat. He pressed me, as I had the general command of the
troops, to come and take my place more in the centre. I therefore continued my
movement down the left hank of the Seine, and two days later reached Troyes.
For several days previously I had been unwell. On my arrival
I was obliged to go to bed. The Marshal and General Gerard came to see me, and
we agreed upon our plan. The first thing to be done was to supply Troyes with
the means of temporary defence, so as to give my corps time to come up. We
settled that one of Gerard's corps should make as long a stand as possible
within and without the town, the other being kept in reserve, and that the
Marshal's corps should be posted on our side of the suburbs, where they should
await the arrival of my troops, which were to come up early next day. Our
anxiety was lest the enemy might cross the Seine at Mery, occupy the high-road
to Nogent. seize Bray and Montereau, and thus separate us from the Emperor. In
that case we should have no road but that by Villeneuve-l'Archeveque and Sens.
I had betaken myself into the environs, the infantry of the
two corps were placed as I have described; I was to follow them with mine. I
was breakfasting quietly, when General Gressot, chief of Marshal Oudinot's
staff, came to tell me that the Marshal's troops had just been .placed in the
position agreed upon. I had ordered a portion of the cavalry to follow the old
route by Pavilion and Le Paraclet.
As we were starting to join the Marshal's force, an officer
brought me intelligence that the enemy were just leaving Troyes, and that I had
not an instant to lose; we were in a road running into the highway. I replied
that such a thing was impossible, as there was one division within and without
the town, another in the rear, and the Marshal's force in reserve.
' They are all gone,' answered the officer, All gone and I
had never been told of it !
Ill as I was, I jumped on my horse, when I saw the enemy's
advance-guard. I dashed at them with my aides- de-camp and my escort, and we
drove them back towards the town. Meanwhile, my carriages started at full
gallop, and reached the high-road. I rejoined General Gerard, who was
continuing his retreat, by order, as he told me, of the Marshal, who was far on
ahead. He had not remained in position, although General Gressot told me that
he had placed his troops according to our agreement. Ten minutes later my
communications were cut off..
We marched all day, skirmishing as we went. The cavalry had
one brush. We were so far ahead that the enemy could not engage us in a very
unequal combat. That evening we made our quarters at Grez and Granges. At the
latter place I found Marshal Oudinot, and inquired why he had quitted his post
that morning. He replied that the Young Guard was not intended for a
' If that is so,' said I, ' I have no further orders for
you. You must go to the Emperor for them,'
I continued retreating. Next day we reoccupied our positions
on the Seine at Nogent, Bray, and Montereau, to defend those points where the
river might be crossed. But the enemy passed it below our left wing, thus
making it necessary to change our direction, and march perpendicularly to the
river. They deployed in front of us, made a vehement attack on our left, which
was formed of the corps of the Duke of Reggio, and drove us back upon Provins.
We held firm all day, but not without loss, crossed the ravines, the narrow
defiles, and the town, and took up our position in the rear,
Our situation was very critical, and we had no news of the
Emperor, though not because we had not sent him reports. The enemy made no
attempt next day; this inactivity did not seem natural, and I ordered all my
cavalry to be in readiness to make a general reconnaissance the following day.
The enemy had only left some feeble detachments to observe us, and were beating
a hasty retreat.
On hearing this I quitted the Maison Rouge, where I was
quartered with the Duke of Reggio, in order to follow their tracks. It was
clear that this retreat, with forces very superior to ours, could only have
been occasioned by a flank movement made by the Emperor. In fact, while we were
on the road, I received orders to march with my full force in the direction of
Arcis-sur-Aube. The Duke of Reggio made a forced march to attain the point
mentioned. I hastened in front of my troops to reach Arcis, but on the way I
came upon a morass, of which the ford had been spoiled and rendered useless by
the transit of some heavy material. I ordered a search to be made for another,
which caused considerable delay. While continuing my journey, I perceived afar
off, on the left of the Aube; all the enemy's forces drawn up in squares,
motionless, and my troops drawing away towards Vitry-sur-Maine. Much surprised
at this movement, I spurred on my horse to learn the reason, I found the
Emperor in the public square at Arcis near a camp-fire.
' What is your motive, Sire,' I inquired, ' for withdrawing
your troops from here ?'
'The enemy are retreating rapidly,' he replied, 'and I am
cutting off their communications. We have got them now, and they shall pay
dearly for their temerity. I have summoned the heavy artillery to Sezanne to
follow my movement to Vitry, and have issued orders to our detachments at
Nogent, Bray, and Montereau, to proceed there by forced marches.'
These detachments were commanded by General Pacthod; the
artillery and waggons of my army corps were protected by them.
' What !' I exclaimed, ' the enemy retreating ? They are in
position on the other side. I myself saw them in considerable force. They also
can discern your retrograde movement, and if they attack you here, how will you
resist them ?'
' They would not dare to do so ; their only idea is to get
across the Rhine, and if they be still there it is simply in order to let all
their baggage-waggons pass. Besides, I have sent the Duke of Reggio and the
cavalry against them, with orders to mask my movement, and to prevent the enemy
from observing it.'
' How is that possible ?' I inquired. ' The town is in a
hollow; the Aube runs between two hills; the enemy are on one, and your troops
are climbing the other.'
' Never mind,' said he , ' when will your force arrive ?'
'Very late to-night.'
' Very good. You will support the Duke of Reggio, who will
continue to act under your orders.'
He told the Major- General to draw up my instructions.
While the latter was dictating them, Marshal Ney, who had
been to reconnoitre the enemy, entered,
' What are they doing ?' asked the Emperor.
' They are not stirring from their position, and do not look
at all as if they meant to attack.'
A short time afterwards, while we were still in
conversation, Colonel Galbois, of the general staff, galloped up to us at the
top of his speed, and in an excited manner informed us that the enemy were
advancing towards us.
' That is impossible ,' said the Emperor.
At the same moment we heard the guns.
' Duke of Tarentum,' said the Emperor, ' mount your horse,
and go and reconnoitre..'
I found the Duke of Reggio very uneasy; his position was
indeed most critical.
' Hasten to the Emperor, I beg you,' he said , ' he must
come to my help, otherwise I am done for.'
'Do not expect any help,' I replied ; 'all his troops are on
the way to Vitry. He is convinced that the enemy are retreating.'
We were still concealed by a slope.
' Let us see,' said I, ' what is threatening us on the other
The Marshal's cavalry quickly descended ; I thought they
were too much exposed. They would have done better had they been posted on the
slope towards Arcis, with vedettes on the edge. Had that been done, the enemy
would not have been able to gauge their force.
On reaching the top we found ourselves face to face with the
enemy's scouts. We hastily turned, but I had just time to glance at our foes
and to see that the allies were resolutely marching towards us.
' Hasten,' said the Duke of Reggio' hasten to Arcis.'
' When I have got past your troops,' I said, ' for the sight
of me galloping to the rear might intimidate and perhaps scatter them. You have
three bridges ,' I added, ' one on each side of you, and one in the middle of
the town ; have them guarded at once.'
I quitted him, riding leisurely. As soon, however, as I had
passed his lines, I set spurs to my horse and galloped to Arcis, but the
Emperor was no longer there. He had mounted his horse and followed his troops
to Vitry. An officer belonging to the general staff was waiting to obtain
intelligence from me, and with orders for me to remain at Arcis until I
received further instructions.