The gripping memoirs of a cavalry officer of the First Empire
This is the story of a remarkable French cavalryman of the Napoleonic era, Denis Charles Parquin, an officer of the Chasseurs a Cheval. Memoirs of soldiers of Napoleon’s army are always exciting, but few exist in English translation. Those that have been translated such as the recollections of Coignet, Barres, Bourgogne and Marbot have become famous and provide a valuable resource of first hand information. Parquin joined the 20th regiment of the horse chasseurs in 1806 and served with it until 1813 rising in rank to lieutenant. He fought at Saalfeld, Jena, Eylau, Wagram, in the Iberian Peninsula at Ciudad Rodrigo and at Salamanca, gathering wounds as well as regimental promotions. In 1813, Parquin agreed to take a reduction in rank to join the elite Chasseurs a Cheval of the Imperial Guard, where he became the emperor’s escort on the march and in the field. Napoleon personally awarded Parquin the cross of the Legion of Honour during a review in the same year. In the final battles of the First Empire Parquin fought at Leipzig, Hanau—where he was wounded—and during the battle for France in 1814, that led to the emperor’s abdication and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. There is some evidence that Parquin took part in the Battle of Waterloo—probably as a cuirassier. He remained in the cavalry under the royalist regime, but was eventually ruined by his involvement in Bonapartist conspiracies. This book concentrates on his life at its most exciting as he served as a ‘beau sabreur’ in the service of his beloved emperor. Included here are numerous illustrations (taken from the edition of these memoirs published as ‘Napoleon’s Victories’) that illuminate the narrative and add to the book’s reading enjoyment and value as a reference source and collectors’ edition.
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When the seventh company, which was the last of the regiment, had come out of the defile, I hastened at a gallop to rejoin the colonel, who was at that moment giving the order for cloaks to be folded and strapped across. The colonel appeared proud and happy to see his regiment of six hundred chasseurs drawn up in battle array, every man of them determined to do himself credit in the conflict. The weather was splendid; the sluggish mists of the morning had all cleared away; it was eleven o’clock; the whole sweep of the plain was afire with the belching of cannon and musketry, while a prodigious number of hares, for which Saxony is famous, were scampering hither and thither across the vacant space, their terror being hailed with a laugh by the waiting cavalrymen. An occasional cannonball plunged as far as our ranks, but this was such a trifle as to command no attention. Suddenly an aide-de-camp from General Durosnel galloped up to our colonel and spoke a few words to him. In a moment our commander turned to a private who was in attendance on him and ordered: “Dismount, chasseur; my saddle appears to be slipping; tighten up the girth a bit; we are going to charge.”’ The chasseur sprang to the ground and shoving an arm through his horse’s bridle took hold between his teeth of the colonel’s saddle girth, the officer moving forward his left leg to facilitate the tightening. At that very moment our poor colonel was struck by a cannonball which took off his head. The colonel’s horse, no longer feeling the guidance or control of a hand, started away in terror and escaped in the direction of the enemy. The chasseur made haste to remount his horse, while I galloped back to my place in the Élite company, but not before reporting to Major-Commandant Watrin the fatal mishap that had deprived us of our colonel.
“I saw him fall,” was the commandant’s reply to me.
Ten minutes passed away before the regiment received any orders.
This was a grave misfortune, in the first place for ourselves, who had to endure thus long the enemy’s cannonade, and also for the 7th Regiment of Chasseurs, which had pierced the Prussian Army through the first and second lines, but then finding itself without support from the 20th Chasseurs, had to forego all the benefit of one of the most brilliant charges that took place during the day.
When General Durosnel at length gave an order it was for our regiment to fall back out of range of the enemy’s fire, the movement being promptly made at the trot in column of fours. I had the grief to see Captain Lavigne struck dead before my eyes—the same officer who had quieted my impatience in the morning by saying: “Parquin, there will be game enough for us all.” I felt sincere regret at his loss.
During the entire day our brigade was moved hither and thither under the Prussian fire, which inflicted much damage on us, but the 20th Chasseurs never dealt a sabre-stroke and the 7th only made one charge which proved barren of result. In our army corps at least it was the infantry and artillery that bore off the honours of the day. I can still behold the 16th and the 7th Light Infantry, the 14th and 27th of the line, crashing into the enemy’s columns in spite of the deadly hail of musketry and grape-shot; the fifes that rang shrill from their bands did not fail in a single note, the gaps that were ploughed in their ranks were filled as the balls swept through, and wherever those heroes advanced with their bayonets “fixed” the Prussian artillery and infantry had to surrender at discretion.
One column of captured Prussians, with its musicians at the front, was defiling just before our regiment when its bandmaster was recognized by the chasseurs, notwithstanding that he took some pains to avert his countenance. “It is Javot!” they exclaimed. And in truth it was the same Javot that had formerly been bandmaster to the 20th Chasseurs. He was a skilled musician, and in addition to some merit as a composer was a splendid player on the cornet. When Colonel Marigni left the regiment temporarily in Holland, Javot, to whom the colonel was personally a source of income, concluded to depart himself and turn his talents to account in Prussia. He accordingly went to Berlin, where a Prussian colonel offered him such inducements that he took service in the regiment which was here made captive in a body. On returning from his charge at the head of the 7th Chasseurs, Major Castex took the chieftancy of the 20th, which its colonel’s death had vacated, and immediately had Javot turned over to his command. Our dead were so numerous that it became easy to find a uniform to fit the bandmaster, and at the head of the 20th Chasseurs Javot made his entry into Berlin just a week after he was made prisoner, and only three weeks from the day he left it at the head of the Prussian regiment.
On the evening of the battle we bivouacked in the suburbs of the city of Weimar, where I spent a sad night, for I had made a visit to Lieutenant Lavigne, who was mourning the death of his beloved brother. Next day I had to go out in a foray to procure some victuals from a neighbouring village. When I returned at night I was greatly surprised to learn, by one of the emperor’s bulletins which reached our bivouac quite late, that on the previous day we had won a mighty battle: fifty thousand Prussians had been killed or taken prisoners three hundred cannon and sixty standards were captured. I must acknowledge that I, had no idea the victory was so great. Our regiment had indeed lost a number of men from the enemy’s fire, but it had made no charge, nor even dealt a sabre-stroke, nor had we captured a single prisoner of the immense host.