Battle of ArcisOn the
MarneBattle of St. DizierBefore Vitry An Unlucky
MisprintReturn towards ParisThe Approaching End.
THE Duke of Reggio's troops, hard pressed, were retreating
in disorder; the danger was that the enemy might take advantage of the
confusion to cross the river; they were already on the bridge. The Marshal had
a division in reserve : I pressed him to order it up. It was of the utmost
importance to us to retake the bridge, which was severely contested. We
reconquered it, and at length set to work to blow it up. Night had fallen. My
troops had arrived ; they were posted at every point, but still we were not
without uneasiness as to the possibility of a nocturnal attack.
An officer came from headquarters to ask for news, and to
bring me orders to hold firm for two or three days. The Emperor's illusion
regarding the retreat of the allies was not yet dissipated.
When morning dawned, we saw the enemy quietly in their
positions. They remained thus all day, but towards evening they began to move
apparently in the direction of Vitry. I immediately sent forward a division to
forestall them, stop their movement, and cover mine. All our troops had orders
to follow, a portion only of my cavalry remaining behind to check for as long
as possible any troops which might debouch from Arcis.
From the road that we followed we were able to observe the
enemy's march; we hastened to get through a nasty- looking defile. The
following day was spent in skirmishing; but, as I foresaw a serious attack
towards the evening, I drew up my infantry in a favourable position, not far
from the point where the enemy would cross the Marne. The artillery covered
them; my cavalry, which formed the rear-guard, received orders to retire if the
enemy showed any disposition to charge, and to come and draw up behind my line,
so as not to mask their fire.
While making these arrangements I was very uneasy, for,
behind my left, I saw the principal allied forces marching along the Marne) and
I feared that they would reach the ford before the division I had sent there,
that was my only communication with the Emperor. The latter still retained his
opinion as to the enemy's retreat. All these demonstrations, he insisted, were
merely feints to deceive us the more thoroughly as to their veritable
intentions of gaining the Rhine. He therefore continued his movement towards
Saint Dizier and Vassy. As to myself, I was closely followed, and, on the rear
of my right wing, Vitry was occupied by the enemy.
The two sides came into collision near the ford over the
river Marne. The allies were fortunately repulsed by the French division, and,
as night was drawing on, they did not think well to hazard an engagement on
their flank, and left us masters of a point the importance of which had perhaps
Events occurred upon my front exactly as I had foreseen
them. The enemy had been reinforced, and now charged my cavalry, which came at
full gallop and very hotly pursued, to take up the place that had been assigned
to them. Scarcely was my line unmasked when their adversaries received a volley
of grapeshot and musketry which threw them into the utmost disorder, and drove
them off for the night.
We spent that night in crossing the river upon a miserable
raft that we afterwards destroyed. Next morning found us drawn up in battle
array upon the right bank, without having been disturbed either by the garrison
of Vitry, or by the troops that we had repulsed on the previous day. They
deployed before us; the river ran between us, and they were out of range. If,
on the previous day, the enemy, who were in strength, had pressed us
vigorously, it would have been all over with us, or, at all events, with our
communications with the Emperor. These were unfortunately cut off for all who
had been left behind, and who were to have reunited at Sezanne. I had made sure
that this convoy had not passed before us; I had even noticed, as I came along
near the defile I had traversed the day before, guns and carriages abandoned,
evident proofs that either a combat, a surprise, or an alarm had occurred
there. Having no horses that could draw it, I was unable to move all this
material, which could not belong to the heavy artillery; moreover, I did not
know whether any fresh orders had been given since those for the junction at
While we were facing the enemy I noticed that they were
sending troops on towards Vitry, where they would have no difficulty in
crossing the Marne.
I received at this very moment orders to send my cavalry to
Saint Dizier, and shortly afterwards fresh instructions to follow with all my
troops. As the Emperor had started thence for Vassy, I received fresh orders to
cross the Marne, which I did next day without having been disturbed since the
morning of the preceding day. I was instructed to take up a position between
the Marne and Vassy.
We had just established ourselves, when I received warning,
and soon afterwards saw that the allied cavalry was debouching from various
directions. I sent word to the Emperor, who ordered me to advance while he came
up in person. He collected all the cavalry that was available, and, going
before us, drew up on the other side of the Marne in the plains of Saint
The enemy had but few infantry, but they had collected at
this point about 10,000 cavalry, with a proportionate amount of light
artillery. The question was whether this cavalry was covering the army, and if
not, what had become of it. The conflict was long and severe. As my artillery
was placed upon the heights below which flows the Marne, I commanded the
battle-field. Never since the beginning of the war had I an opportunity of
seeing so many cavalry engaged. At length the enemy were broken and put to
flight, losing 3.000 horses with all their artillery, and were pursued for some
We arrived before Vitry next day, and had melancholy proof
that the main army of the allies was no longer there ; what could have become
of it? It was not difficult to guess, for as it had not followed us, and had
left a strong garrison in the town, it was clear that it had faced about and
was marching unopposed to Paris ! We had tramped through pouring rain, with
hardly any intermission; the men were utterly exhausted, and the ground so
soaked that we could move neither cavalry nor artillery. The Emperor said to me
' Storm the town.'
' What!' I exclaimed, ' in the present condition of the
troops ? Do you not see how large the garrison is on the ramparts ? I grant
that they are only made of earth, but, still, they are strengthened with
fraises and palisaded, and the fosses are full of water ; how are we to cross
'Collect some bundles of straw and throw them in, answered
'Where are we to get them? There is nothing in the
neighbouring villages. And, besides, can we make a solid bridge with a few
bundles of straw ? Moreover, can there be any hope of success if such a coup de
main is attempted with men utterly worn out like mine are now ?'
As he still insisted, I dryly said :
' Try it, Sire, with your own Guard if you will; my men are
not in a fit condition now,' and left him.
He sent out a reconnoitring party, and their reports
convinced him of the impossibility of the enterprise.
A bulletin printed by the enemy was brought to me, giving a
detailed account of the seizure of the great convoy of artillery that had been
collected at Sezanne, and of all the escort, who had been made prisoners, after
a brave defence, at Fere-Champenoise, where the encounter had taken place. It
included the names of the generals, and of the commissioned and
non-commissioned officers. I saw the names of all those belonging to my corps.
I took this sheet to the Major-General, and begged him to let the Emperor see
it at once.
' That I will not, replied he ; ' the news is too bad. Take
it to him yourself.'
' No,' said I , ' you are our proper intermediary ; it is
part of your business.'
We argued the point with considerable warmth; but as I
reflected that the knowledge of these events could not fail ' to alter the
Emperor's plans, and that there was no time to be lost, I took the bulletin to
He was alone near a camp fire.
'You look very much disturbed,' he said. 'What is the matter
' Read this,' I answered, handing him the paper.
He read it through and smiled. .
'It is not true,' he said. 'That is what the allies always
' Not true !' I cried, ' but all the circumstances are
detailed. I recognize all the names and appointments; our heavy artillery ought
to be just about Fere-Champenoise now.'
' What day of the month is this ?'
'The twenty-seventh of March.'
(The battle had taken place the previous day.)
'Look here,' said the Emperor, 'this is dated the 29th,
which will only be the day after to-morrow !'
For an instant I was nonplussed ; I had not noticed the
date. ' That must be a mistake,' I said; ' this unfortunate affair must have
taken place yesterday at the spot mentioned.'
I took up the printed sheet again, and returned to the
Major-General's bivouac, where I found his officers and the Emperor's
' Well, what did the Emperor say ?'
' He does not believe this bulletin is authentic.'
' Will you allow me to look at it ?' asked General Drouot,
of the Artillery. He examined it, and continued: ' I fear that you are only too
correct, Monsieur ie Marechal. It must be a misprint; this is a 6 turned tail
I went with this explanation to the Emperor, who made no
' The devil ! That alters matters.'
He walked up and down for a few moments, and then said:
' So you don't think we can carry Vitry by main force ?'
' I thought,' was my reply, ' that you were convinced of
' Quite true,' he answered. ' Very well, let us go away "
' Where will you go ?'
' I don't know yet; but for the present to Saint Dizier.
Remain here,' he added; ' act as the rear-guard; keep the enemy in check, and
prevent them from leaving the town. I will send you further orders; I am sure
to get news at Saint Dizier.'
' Whatever it may be,' I replied, ' Paris, left without
defence, will have fallen before you can get thereif you are going
thither, that isand however fast you may travel. Were I in your place, I
would go into Lorraine and Alsace, collect the garrisons from there, and wage
war to the knife upon the enemy's rear, cutting off their communications,
intercepting their convoys and reinforcements. They would be compelled to
retreat, and you would be supported by our strongholds.'
' I have already ordered General Durutteto collect 10,000
men round Metz,' he said ; 'but before deciding upon anything I must have
He started. That night I received orders to retire to Saint
Dizier, and there found fresh ones to follow the Emperor, who had gone in the
direction of Vassy, Doulaincourt, and Troyes, so the plan of throwing himself
into Alsace and Lorraine had clearly been abandoned.