A two volume narrative of the Napoleonic Wars by a highly regarded general
Personal narratives of the careers of Napoleon’s soldiers of the First Empire are not common in English translation nor are they so devoid of interest to the modern student of the Napoleonic Wars as to be unwelcome or ignored. Thiébault’s military recollections fill two substantial volumes and it is worth noting that the English language translator, Butler, was the same person who brought the exploits of the real Brigadier Gerard, Marbot, to English readers. Thiébault joined the army of the Revolution in 1792, serving in both the armies of the Rhine and the North. By 1795 he had risen to the rank of adjutant to Solignac in Italy. In 1801 he was promoted to General and at Austerlitz commanded a brigade and was wounded in the Pratzen plateau assault. He then served extensively throughout the Peninsular War and subsequently as an infantry division commander in Germany in the campaigns of 1813 and 1814 which led to the fall of Napoleon. In 1815 he rallied to his master’s banner and commanded at the defence of Paris at the close of ‘the One Hundred Days’.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Napoleon’s position, after recrossing the Danube, was in truth complicated. In order to be prepared, or at least able to be prepared to act, if necessary, against the King of Prussia, the Archduke Charles, the two emperors, and the Archduke Ferdinand, or to mass his forces against a divided enemy, he left the corps of Augereau and Ney in observation on the Upper Danube, within reach of the reserves at Strasburg and Mainz, to act in concert with our Army of the North, and hold the Prussians and Swedes. The Bavarians were to keep the Archduke Charles in check; Reille with the Wurtembergers, and Lauriston with the Badeners, commanded at Linz and Braunau, to secure our communications; Marmont occupied Vienna; while the rest of the army, that is, the corps under Bernadotte, Davout, Soult, Lannes, and Mortier, the Imperial Guard, the grenadier reserve, and four cavalry divisions, marched under Napoleon’s direct command to Brünn.
This fortress was stuffed with stores and ammunition, and it was thought that the allies would not leave it to us without trying the chance of a battle. But on our approach they withdrew, and continued their retreat as far as Olmütz. There they concentrated in a formidable position, making Napoleon think that they would remain there for some time; the more so that part of their troops were tired, and had already lost heavily, and they were expecting the Grand Duke Constantine with the Guards’ corps.
At this juncture the emperor was informed that the Archduke Charles must have passed Göritz. At once he sent Mortier’s corps and half of Davout’s back to Vienna, combining them there with Marmont’s corps, in order to guard the capital, occupy Gratz, and be able to assemble 40,000 men there with a view of checking the Archduke’s march and, after being joined by Masséna, of crushing him. As a final precaution, he kept in touch with Vienna by placing Friant’s division of Davout’s corps and one division of dragoons at Nikolsburg. As a result of this disposition, he was able to reinforce himself at all points, and be prepared to beat the enemy’s different corps one after the other. But the uncertainty of the allies’ operations, and the disorder that prevailed in their management, were in these circumstances as good as a stratagem in the way that they baffled Napoleon’s previsions.
While he believed that the allies were thinking only of completing their concentration, and fortifying themselves at Olmütz, they had reached that town on November 23, and, expecting to be joined on the 25th by Constantine with the final reinforcements, suddenly resolved to advance again, and move on the 25th. In consequence of this grotesque change of plan, the orders in execution of the new arrangement were issued on the 24th. Two days’ rations, however, were to be distributed to the troops during the course of the 24th, and as these ran short the start had to be put off till the 26th.
But on that day it turned out that the generals had not yet comprehended the orders and instructions which they had received on the 24th, and it was only on the 27th that the army of the two emperors was again on the march. Their unexpected movement was to bring about the shock; and just as he had reason to expect a long rest, Napoleon suddenly found himself on the eve of a great and decisive battle.
This battle, which was to be the chastisement of a most faithless aggression, and which, as the result of a series of gigantic conceptions, was to crown by the most brilliant of victories such a campaign as no army will ever again enter upon, has been often enough described. I will therefore only speak about it so far as is necessary to my story.
The hostile force which was advancing to give battle amounted to 104,000 men, including 16,000 cavalry. I give these figures from what I was told at Brünn, where I lay wounded after the departure of the army, by General Weirother, who was appointed Governor of Moravia at the peace, and who, at the time of the battle, was quartermaster-general of the allied army, of which Kutusoff was commander-in-chief.
At the moment when these 104,000 men got into movement, and marched upon us in a body, our troops were thus distributed. Four regiments of light cavalry at Wischau, where, I do not know how or why, 104 infantry were captured; at Austerlitz and in the neighbouring villages the 4th Corps under Marshal Soult, which came up by way of the Convent of Raigern; at Bosenitz, Holübitz, and Welspitz, the 5th Corps under Lannes; at Schlapanitz the 1st Corps under Bernadotte; on the road from Brünn to Wischau the cavalry of the Line, under the immediate command of Murat; at Brünn the grenadier reserve, the Imperial Guard, and the emperor.
On the morning of the 28th the enemy appeared before Wischau. Our four regiments of light cavalry, attacked in front and outflanked by the three cavalry divisions of Prince Bagration’s advance-guard and by General Kienmayer’s advance-guard, fell back. In spite of several charges which delayed them, they effected their retreat in good order by the Brünn road, till they were in rear of Rausnitz, which we evacuated in the course of the evening, and the enemy occupied at once. All the troops passed the night under arms, and from the heights of Austerlitz, where the 4th Corps bivouacked, we counted seven lines of the enemy’s bivouacs, ruled to an immense length across the heights in front of Wischau. In rear of those lines of fire, at Prosnitz, the entire reserve formed the guard of the two emperors, while in front of them Bagration and Kienmayer were in position between us and Rausnitz.
While everything was thus getting ready for a terrible shock, flags of truce were passing more actively than ever. On that very 28th General Gyulai and Count Stadion arrived at Brünn to negotiate, but Napoleon, having just put an end to an armistice which had been extorted from Murat on November 15 and was only a trap, sent the plenipotentiaries in haste back to Vienna under the pretext of resuming the conferences begun at Mölk. On the evening of the same day they were followed by Count Haugwitz, the Prussian Minister for Foreign Affairs; but the emperor, pointing out that he might be in danger amid the hurly-burly of a great battle, advised him also to go to Vienna. I may say that the negotiations continued until the cannon began to roar and were interrupted only by it; for on the next day, and again on that following, Savary was sent to Alexander, while on the morrow of the Battle of Austerlitz Prince Lichtenstein began the negotiations which led up to the peace.
There was, indeed, talk of an interview between the two sovereigns; the Emperor Alexander had expressed a desire for it, but those about him were opposed to it. As for Napoleon, on hearing that Alexander’s aide-de-camp, Prince Dolgorouki, was at the outposts, he went there from a motive which people were far from guessing. The arrogance of the Russian, the extravagance of the claims which he was bidden to maintain, seemed of such a kind that Dolgorouki was pretty sharply sent back. Two things were striking in these interviews—one the contempt for the Austrians which the Russian officers from the imperial headquarters very unjustly proclaimed, attributing to them all the reverses of the campaign; the other the ignorance under which the same officers lay with regard to what had passed.
They believed that they had nowhere been beaten, were convinced that we had more than shared their losses, and were certain a hundred times over not only of beating us but of annihilating us. Alexander himself carried this mistaken confidence to the highest point, and it certainly had its influence upon the disaster towards which he and his army were marching. I have always been convinced that Napoleon, in determining to see Dolgorouki, had wished to judge of this fact for himself, and that not only thus did he fully convince himself from their bragging of the incompetence of the Russian commanders, but that he also succeeded in adding to their fatal confidence.