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Savary: Memoirs of the Duke of Rovigo
Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 13
The enemy commence the attack—Our left is defeated—The Emperor rides twice over the lines through a shower of balls—Death of Bessières—Words spoken by the Emperor—General Reille—Macdonald—Results of the battle of Wagram— Presentiment of General Lasalle before the battle—His death.

THE enemy commenced the attack by their left bearing down upon our right, that is to say, upon the corps of Marshal Davout, which showed itself at the village of MargraffNeusidel. From the point at which we stood, we called it the village of the Square Tower, because it has, in fact, an old feudal castle surmounted by a large square tower which is seen from every part of the plain.

I have heard that the attack upon Marshal Davout was led on by Prince John of Lichtenstein: it was sufficiently severe to satisfy us that it was no feigned enterprise of the enemy: we were justified in supposing that they contemplated to extend their front beyond our right, in order to communicate with the corps which we expected was marching from Presburg ; but whatever may have been the object they had in view, the Emperor ordered Marshal Davout to drive them back without allowing them time to recover, and he sent him the cavalry division of General Nansouty, who had with him a company of horse artillery, to enable his taking advantage of any success he might obtain. It is to be observed that the marshal had already at his disposal the division of cuirassiers of the Duke of Padua, the same that was commanded by General d'Espagne previously to the battle of Essling. The action soon commenced. The Emperor repaired to the spot, and sent in that direction all the horse and foot-guards, with the whole of his artillery, expecting every moment the appearance of the corps coming from Presburg ; but he had scarcely arrived when we beheld the Austrian army in motion, retiring from the position it occupied in front of Marshal Davout, and manœuvring in an opposite direction. The Emperor ordered his guard to halt, and began to watch the enemy's motions. At this moment General Reille came up from Massena's corps, and announced to us that affairs were going on very badly in that quarter, and that not a moment was to be lost in proceeding thither, that is to say, in crossing the whole field of battle from right to left. The Emperor's first measure was to send back with General Reille the Prince of Neufchatel, who on a day of battle never spared himself, and was a keen observer of its details; and he made the guard return by the same road they had come. In order to execute this movement, its artillery, consisting of eighty pieces of cannon, opened the march. The Emperor passed along the whole army formed in battle array, and came to its left wing, which no longer existed; in other words the corps of Marshal Massena was in a complete state of dissolution, and the four divisions composing it did not present a single united body; so that the left of our army was, in reality, the Saxon corps commanded by Bernadotte, which an hour before was on Marshal Massena's right.

The following is an account of what had taken place. Marshal Massena had manœuvred the whole morning to join the grand army. Whilst engaged in that movement, the Austrian army was considerably reinforcing its right with the view of attacking our left: the consequence was, Marshal Massena was so quickly overpowered, that there had hardly been time to consider of the means of relieving him. Whilst effecting his movement to join the Emperor, it was necessary that he should direct the village of Aderklaw to be attacked; a duty which was assigned to General Carra-Saint-Cyr's division. The 24th regiment of light infantry being at the head of the column, commenced the charge in so bold a manner that it carried the village: fortune seemed to have opened to the troops on the other side of the village of Aderklaw a broad hollow road (the one leading to Wagram), where that gallant regiment would have been almost completely under shelter. Common sense suggested its being brought into that road, which formed a natural redoubt ; but owing to a serious fault of the officer in command there, the 24th regiment was made to step over the hollow road, and to station itself at the entrance of the village, where, being wholly unprotected, it had to sustain a dreadful fire of musketry, was charged after suffering a severe loss, and in the confusion of retreating, drew along with it the remainder of Saint-Cyr's division, which consisted in a great measure of allied troops, such as those from Baden, Darmstadt, and other countries.

This defeat occasioned the rout of the troops commanded by Generals Legrand and Boudet. The latter lost all his artillery: our left, in short, had become nothing more than a large opening, through which the right of the Austrian army penetrated so far, that the batteries of the island of Lobau, which had protected our passage, were under the necessity of again opening their tremendous fire, in order to stop the enemy's columns now boldly advancing towards our bridges: the enemy's right was taking up a position in a perpendicular line to our extreme left, and compelled us to give it the form of an angle, for the purpose of returning the enemy's fire.

They had placed some pieces of artillery in such a manner as to fire upon the angle or elbow, whilst they were cannonading us on both sides of the angle.

I know not what was the Emperor's object; but he remained a full hour at that angle, which was a perfect stream of shot ; and as there was no fire of musketry kept up, the soldier was becoming discouraged. The Emperor was more sensible than any one else that such a situation could not last long, and he remained there for the purpose of remedying the disorder. In the height of the danger, he rode in front of the line upon a horse as white as snow (it was called the Euphrates, and had been sent to him as a present from the Sophi of Persia. He proceeded from one extremity of the line to the other, and returned at a slow pace: it will easily be believed that shots were flying about him in every direction. I kept behind, with my eyes rivetted upon him, expecting at every moment to see him drop from his horse.

After having fully examined every thing, be completed his arrangements just as the guard had come up to this fearfully exposed left wing.

He ordered his aide-de-camp, General Lauriston, who commanded the eighty pieces of artillery of the guard, to fire them in one compact battery upon the centre of the enemy's army.

He sent in the rear of that battery the division of the young guard, commanded on this occasion by General Reille, who had been previously with Marshal Massena. He places himself on Lauriston's left, and to the right of that battery ; and directed the two divisions of the army of Italy, under Marshal Macdonald's orders, to move forward.

Those three masses advanced in the direction of Aderklaw, and were followed by the cavalry of the guard, of which the Emperor only kept with him the regiment of horse-grenadiers.

The rest of the cavalry was sent to arrest the right of the Austrians in their advance.

The Emperor had ordered that, as soon as the opening which he intended to make in the enemy's centre should have been effected, the whole cavalry should charge, and wheel round upon all the troops that had penetrated to the extremity of our left: he had just given directions, in consequence, to Marshal Bessières; and the latter had barely started to execute them, when he was knocked down by the most extraordinary cannon-shot ever seen: a shot in full sweep tore his breeches open from the top of the thigh to the knee, running along the thigh in a zigzag form, as if it had been a thunderbolt ; he was so suddenly thrown off his horse, that we fancied he had been killed on the spot: the same shot forced the barrel from his pistol, and carried off both barrel and stock. The Emperor had also seen him fall ; but not recognising him at first, had asked, " Who is it ?',—(this was his usual expression) - "Bessières, Sire,'' was the reply. He instantly turned his horse round, saying, " Let us go, for I have no time to weep ; let us avoid another scene''—(he alluded to the regret he had felt at the loss of Marshal Lannes). He sent me to see if Bessières was still alive: he had just been carried off the ground, and had recovered his senses, having merely been struck in the thigh, which was completely paralysed.

This untoward cannon-shot left the cavalry without a leader, during the most important quarter of an hour in the day, which was to have an immense influence over the battle. ; Immediately after the accident the Emperor sent me with an order for General Nansouty to charge whatever troops were before him ; these were the Austrian right, which had formed into a solid mass. Nansouty's division had six regiments, including the two of carbineers; behind him was General Saint-Sulpice's division, composed of four regiments.

I found him in a very unpromising situation; he was exposed to a very destructive cannonade. On receiving the order to charge, he prepared to obey it, and started off at a trot; but the firing of the Austrians was so warmly kept up, that it stopped the division, who suffered a loss of twelve hundred horses killed on the spot; it would not have lost more had it made a full charge: a course which, if practicable, would have been attended with immense results, as it would have occasioned the surrender of a great part of the Austrian right. In the meanwhile, the artillery of the guard was making a dreadful havoc amongst the enemy's centre, such as might have been expected from eighty pieces of cannon, all twelve and eight-pounders, served by picked artillerymen. The troops of General Reille advanced upon Aderklaw; and General Macdonald, who was on the right of that battery, gave to the whole army an admirable example of personal courage, by marching at the head of his two divisions, formed in columns, and leading them, under a shower of balls and grapeshot, up to the very lines of the enemy, at a slow pace, without their falling into the least confusion.

The firing of cannon and the march of Macdonald forced an opening in the centre of the enemy, and separated their right from the rest of the army. The Emperor, who was present on the ground, was again anxious that the cavalry should take advantage of so fine an opportunity: he sent an order to the guards to charge; but whether the order was incorrectly reported or not, it was not carried into effect, and that immense and splendid cavalry did not take a single man : whilst, if it bad been led on by a bold and resolute officer, it could not have failed to make many prisoners. A particular opportunity offered at one time for taking one-fourth at least of the Austrian army. We greatly regretted on this occasion the absence of the Grand-duke of Berg ; he was the very man we wanted at so critical a moment.

The Emperor was greatly displeased with the cavalry; and he said on the field of battle, "It never served me in this manner before : it will be the cause of this battle not being attended with any result." He retained in consequence, for a long time, a feeling of rancour against the generals who commanded the cavalry regiments of his guard, and he would have made an example of them, had he had not taken into consideration some old and valuable services they had previously rendered.

Notwithstanding so many faults, the battle was decided in our favour: at half-past two in the afternoon the enemy's right had retreated, and was endeavouring to join the main army by avoiding the opening we had made in its centre. On our right, Marshal Davout had ascended the plateau of Margraff-Neusidel, and succeeded in maintaining his ground.

The Emperor ordered Wagram to be attacked by Oudinot's corps, supported by the other two divisions of the army of Italy. That column also penetrated into the position of the Austrians, and maintained itself there the whole evening. The enemy retreated at all points towards four o'clock, abandoning the field of battle to us, but without leaving any prisoners or cannon behind, and after having fought in a manner calculated to instil a cautious conduct into any man disposed to deeds of rashness. They were followed, though at a respectful distance ; for they had not been forced, and we were not at all anxious to drive them to the necessity of resuming their order of battle until we should have succeeded in detaching some portion from the main body. Marshal Massena's corps had re-organised itself, and resumed its former position.

Although the triumph of our arms was beyond question, we did not urge the pursuit so far as the road leading from Vienna to Breme. The Austrians marched the whole night; and retired by the road from Vienna to Znaim, and by the cross road of Wolkersdorf, also towards the town of Znaim. The Emperor slept on the field of battle, in the midst of his troops. His tent was scarcely pitched when an alarm spread in an instant throughout the army, which it had wellnigh thrown into disorder: it was created by marauders, who, having wandered too far, were pursued by bodies of cavalry belonging to the Archduke Ferdinand's army, which had reached the river Marche, and was no doubt endeavouring to open a communication with the grand army. The soldiers ran to arms in all directions, but the alarm soon subsided.

Thus ended the memorable action of Wagram, the results of which on the field of battle were not commensurate with the prodigious labours and the scientific conceptions which had preceded the immediate arrangements for the conflict. The army stood in need of some of those men accustomed to turn success to the utmost advantage, and to carry off whole bodies of troops at a decisive crisis. The Emperor alone did every thing ; by his presence he checked the disorder at the moment of the catastrophe that befel our left wing.

The whole population of Vienna ascended the roofs of the houses and the ramparts, from whence it witnessed the battle: in the morning the ladies of that city were flushed with the hope of our defeat, which changed to a general gloom towards two in the afternoon. The retreat of the Austrian army was as plainly distinguished as it could have been from the field of battle.

The Austrian army successfully resisted our attacks at almost every point: it was extremely numerous, and ought to have been joined by the army at Presburg. Although it was in a great measure composed of the landwehr, who were indifferently trained to war, on two remarkable circumstances of the battle it ought to have acted more judiciously than it did. In the first place, the enemy ought not to have abandoned the attack made upon our right at the beginning of the action; by persisting in that attack, they would have prevented the grand retrograde movement of the troops which we transferred from our right to our left wing. In the second place, they ought to have followed up the success obtained by their right over the corps of Massena, and brought their centre fully into play, without allowing us time to move to the point where Massena was stationed a hundred pieces of cannon, and as many squadrons, with three fresh divisions of infantry, which repaired our disasters in that quarter. The Austrian army had no cause to retreat ; it was in greater strength than we were, since a third of our army consisted of foreign troops, the amalgamation of which with our own was attended with many disadvantages. It thought proper, however, to retire from the field; and no doubt felt itself unable to run the risk of further events, of the result of which it no longer entertained any sanguine hopes.

The Emperor was going over the field of battle the same evening when intelligence was brought to him of the death of General Lasalle, who had just been killed by one of the last musket-shots fired before the final retreat of the enemy. That general had had, in the morning, a strange presentiment of the fate that awaited him. The acquisitian of glory had been an object of much greater solicitude to him than the advancement of his fortune ; but, on the night previous to the battle, he seems to have had the fate of his children strongly impressed upon his mind, and he awoke to draw up a petition to the Emperor in their behalf, which he placed in his saber-tasche. When the Emperor passed in the morning in front of his division, General Lasalle did not address him ; but he stopped M. Maret, who was a few paces behind, and told him that, never having asked any favour of the Emperor, he begged he would take charge of the petition which he then handed to him, in case any misfortune should befall him; a few hours afterwards he was no more.

The Emperor was but indifferently pleased with the result of the battle of Wagram ; he would have desired a repetition of Marengo, of Austerlitz, or of Jena, and nothing on his part was left undone towards obtaining the object of his wishes ; but he was so far foiled that the Austrian army was unbroken; it retreated to take up another position, which would again call for new exertions of his mind to bring about an engagement attended with a more signal result. That army, moreover, might succeed in effecting a junction with the army which was on its march from Presburg ; whilst we, on the contrary, had no reinforcements whatever to expect. We were but too well aware that no dependence was to be placed upon the Russian army: the only point we had gained in respect to it was, that it would not join the Austrians at a moment which fortune did not yet appear to have marked out as the limit of her favours to us. The Russians only put fifteen thousand men in motion, whose co-operation was confined to an attempt to get the start of the Polish troops at Cracow : a movement which never appeared to the Emperor in any other than a suspicious light.

The signal events of a war are always followed by a moral effect, upon which public opinion, for or against either of the contending parties, is generally formed ; the battle of Essling had turned the tide of opinion against us ; that unfavourable impression was destroyed by the battle of Wagram, which, to a certain extent, reinstated us in the public mind. This favourable change, slow in pronouncing itself so long as any doubt hung over the reality of our success, was confirmed by the fact of our following the Austrian army in its retreat.

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