Napoleon Bonaparte’s adventure in the Middle East brought him in close contact with the Mamelukes—the dominant military caste of Egypt at the close of the 18th century. As students of the period know, despite the fact that the French inflicted devastating defeats on the Mamelukes, their exotic ‘oriental’ appearance appealed to a European sense of romance to the degree that Mameluke cavalry took their place in the Imperial Guard. Napoleon notably enrolled a Mameluke, Roustan Raza, as his bodyguard and valet. There was also a second valet, known as ‘Ali’, in the emperor’s service, who was in reality a Frenchman. Louis-Etienne Saint-Denis was born in Versailles in 1788 where his father was an overseer in the royal stables. In common with several servants who occupied a position close to the person of Napoleon, Saint-Denis, ‘the French Mameluke’, has left us an essential view of the private and intimate world of the emperor’s domestic, political and military life. An indispensable addition to every library of the Napoleonic age.
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The streets which led to the gate by which we were to go out were crowded. The cannon still rumbled, and were intermixed with discharges of musketry. We advanced but slowly, with soldiers scattered through the city vainly looking for their regiments. Except for some platoons of grenadiers and chasseurs of the Guard and some slender scratch squadrons formed of officers of different cavalry corps, the rest were pell-mell and marched as they pleased, following the current. One saw a good number of men, but no army any longer. Many soldiers, worn out with fatigue, preferred to stay in the houses by the fire rather than go with their comrades. We had some difficulty in reaching the gate, but passed through it easily enough.
It was freezing hard, and the thermometer marked, I think, twenty-four degrees below zero. The road was extremely bad; the snow was so beaten by the feet of the travellers and hardened by the cold that it was transformed into ice. But we went on, though slowly. We reached the foot of the mountain. Here the road grows narrower and is not more than eight or nine feet broad and describes a hollow curve; the two sides are steep. As the horses of the first wagons, cannon, and caissons could not keep their feet, they fell at the first attempt to pull. When one got up the other fell; as the first and second wagons of the convoy stopped, all the others were prevented from advancing. Nobody could succeed in moving ahead a few yards. Men on foot, men on horseback, did the best they could to get out of the press, which grew worse from moment to moment and completely obstructed the entrance to the gorge. Some went to the right, some to the left, some passed through the wagons. I was one of the latter. When I reached the top of the mountain I let my horse have time to breathe, after which I went on.
I learned during the course of the evening, from the conversation of my friends, something of what had happened in the city and at the foot of the mountain. The Cossacks had entered the city before the soldiers had had time to evacuate it. The confusion, which had already been great before we started, had become much greater, consequently the enemy had nothing to do but to kill and make prisoners. A large number of soldiers who had suffered severely during the retreat, and others who were tired out, others again who had been wounded or had their feet frozen, unwilling to leave their beds or the fires by which they sat, had all been made prisoners or massacred. Soon afterward another party of Cossacks had come to make an attack on all the cannon, caissons, and baggage wagons, which had just left the city in long files or were crowded together at the foot of the mountain, increasing the disorder, which was already great before the enemy arrived. The baggage wagons had been opened and French and Russians had taken to pillaging them. One can imagine such a spectacle, lighted only by scattering musket shots and the whiteness of the snow.
The Russians must have seen the next morning, from what they had captured before and what they had just taken, how much of the French army must remain in men, horses, cannon, caissons, and baggage. They must have found in the wagons belonging to the emperor’s household tents, harnesses, saddles, silverware, coined money, etc., etc., not only what had been left at Wilna during the campaign, but also what had been saved during the retreat. They must have found the whole or a part of the little which had been taken from them at Moscow and in the other cities, and probably their Cross of Ivan also, unless it had been thrown into some river or lake. Our losses in this affair of Wilna and of the mountain were immense, since everything was lost.
Although the army had suffered heavy losses since its departure from Moscow in men, horses, and materiel, there still remained, when we entered Wilna, a good nucleus, but in that city and at the foot of the mountain the pitiful but very precious fragments of our large and valiant army were annihilated. Many men succeeded in escaping, but how many stayed there!
After Wilna we had to pass over a long dike which crossed a great swamp. It was so cold that the greater number of the soldiers who had formed part of the detachments gathered at Wilna remained on the road, stricken by the cold. These men, who had not had to suffer like those who had come back from Moscow, would fall over forward, kick a little, and die. I have seen those who were nearest to them take off their greatcoats or their shoes, and they did not neglect to feel for their money belts. Everybody would step aside, going out of his way no more than not to walk on the dead or dying man, for fear of falling down himself. A perfect indifference, an extreme egotism, was in all hearts. Eh! what could they have done? To stop to help a poor devil meant losing time, getting oneself frozen. For woe to him who stayed still for a moment; he was quickly overcome. One had to keep moving all the time. Those who had made the campaign, being more accustomed to a cold temperature, stood it much better than the newcomers.
At one of our last halting places we were quartered in a good-sized farm. This farm, which was constructed of stone, had the appearance of a ruined castle. What was left of the foot guard, the grenadiers, and chasseurs had taken possession of the courtyards and had collected all the straw found in the barns, to make beds for themselves around the fires. The next day, when it was time to go, I saw grenadiers who had not the courage to rise in order to save themselves from the fire which was spreading to the straw on which they were lying. The laziness, or, to speak more truthfully, the weakness and exhaustion, were such that the greater part of these men had scarcely the strength to put their knapsacks on their shoulders and to take up their guns. How many arms must the enemy have found between Moscow and the Niemen! For all the soldiers, except a very small number, had thrown away their arms or had left them in their bivouacs.
During the whole day which preceded our arrival at Kovno the cold was excessively bitter. This showed in the marching column, which grew thinner as we advanced. Anyone who stopped, not having the strength to march, was a lost man, for the cold seized him quickly. How many soldiers were left on that road! I almost always went on foot, and only mounted my horse to rest a little, but I dismounted as soon as I felt my feet and hands getting numb. In spite of the pains I took to protect myself I had two fingers frozen—the first and middle fingers of my left hand.
At the entrance to Kovno there was no longer the compact crowd which I had seen at Wilna; there was only a group of two or three hundred individuals, so that we did not have long to wait for our turn to go in. All of us who belonged to the Household went to the place where the emperor had lived after the passage of the Niemen. We dined well and that night we slept very quietly. At last we were going to be outside of that Russia, that terrible country, which had just cut down pitilessly the finest army of modern times.
The next day, as soon as it was light, we left the city and went to the bridge, which was not far off, and crossed it. The Niemen was entirely frozen. Just as we crossed the bridge a detachment of some fifteen Poles of the Guard and a few foot soldiers also crossed it. They were all that I saw. After crossing the Niemen the Poles went to the left and we to the right, following some scattering soldiers who were a little way ahead of us. It was luck that guided us. At the end of the day we stopped at a sort of combination farm and country house occupied by the King of Naples. We spent the night there.