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.
On January 20, our division left its cantonments and Caserta, and marched on Naples. This movement, which the Neapolitans ought to have foreseen, resulted in the surprise, at Aversa, of 300 cavalry, with a colonel, the materials of a pontoon, 15 guns, and 150 tumbrils, which fell into the hands of General Dufresse without an attempt being made to defend them. The left had to fight for the passage of the ditches called Regi Lagni, and for the possession of Pomigliano d’Arco. This place was carried with a rush and burnt, the inhabitants being put to the sword. Towards evening the first division pushed its advance-guard towards Lieignano, that of the third reaching Melito.
Next day the army continued its advance, with orders to shut in Naples to the south-east, and to crown the heights which command it to the north and the north-east. Girardon’s brigade accordingly marched on the fine position of Capodimonte, where it met with a resistance to which our troops were not accustomed. Musketry-fire remaining of no avail against men who were fresh, and more desperate than those whom they succeeded, attacking columns had to be formed, in order to pierce their lines and rout them. By evening we were masters of the position. At the same time the first division was marching on Capodichino, which was held in force by the enemy, with cannon. Swiss troops of the line figured in the front rank; and as each man had a number of lazzaroni behind him, ready to kill him at the first sign of shirking, they all fought like heroes. The engagement was long and fierce, but we at length took the position and the guns which defended it.
General Duhesme’s division meanwhile was heavily engaged. About eight in the morning General Monnier advanced from Pomigliano, to take up a position beyond Poggio Reale. On approaching that hamlet, its scouts had been checked by a brisk and sustained fire. The advance-guard, coming to their support, had been met with volleys and cannon-shot, but the main body, combining a front attack and a turning movement, captured the guns and destroyed the Neapolitan force, few of whom made their way back to Naples by the broken ground to right and left of the Capua road. Then General Duhesme committed the only mistake I ever saw him make, a mistake both of strategy and of discipline. He had reached the point where he ought to have halted, having been originally bidden to wait till the columns of the right were aligned with his. Having started later than the left, they could not yet be so, nor indeed were they so till the afternoon. Moreover, he had orders not to attack Naples till next morning.
Lastly, Colonel Broussier, to whom he had entrusted his finest regiment, had not yet come back, so that it was, on all accounts, his duty to undertake nothing that day without further orders. But the advantage gained by his leading troops, and the chance of profiting by the dismay which the sudden return of 1,000 fugitives might spread in Naples, enticed him into allowing the enemy no breathing-time, while, no doubt, his hopes were further raised by the luck that had befallen at Pescara, Gaeta, and elsewhere. Nor was the general, who in the Army of the Rhine had been known as “General Bayonet,” a man to be easily stopped. In a word, Duhesme did before Naples what Macdonald had done before Capua, and tried to take the place all by himself. He advanced towards the Capuan suburb, near enough to find himself obliged to open an artillery combat. This began to show him that he had been imprudent, yet he could not afford to be the first to leave of, lest the appearance of an advantage should stimulate the frenzied ardour of the Neapolitans.
Finding himself obliged to maintain the offensive at all costs, he ordered General Monnier to carry the suburb. That general at once formed two attacking columns from the 64th of the Line and the 2nd Cisalpine Legion, and, supported by the fire of our horse-battery, advanced on the suburb, which was defended by six guns, and by thousands of lazzaroni, soldiers, and inhabitants. Everything gave way before him. His aide-de-camp, Demoly, with two grenadier companies, hurrying forward, captured three of the guns; the general followed. There was a hand-to-hand fight, in which the bayonet soon had the best of it, and our soldiers were in possession of the Piazza Capuana, having an ancient gate, flanked by two towers, still between them and the city. But it was one thing to have got the piazza, and quite another to be masters of the suburb.
Every house was shut, and filled to the very roof with marksmen; from the windows on every floor, through loopholes, and from the tops of the houses, from balconies as from skylights, came a deadly fire. General Monnier, being the mark for all these madmen, soon fell seriously wounded. An effort was made to get him out of danger of further shots, and, though many of those who carried him were struck, he was safely brought off. But the men, deprived of their chief, lost heart, and, as before Capua, a retreat was effected, after many brave men had been lost, and one of the three best brigadier-generals in the army disabled.
General Duhesme, who, with me, had followed Monnier’s movement, rejoined the remainder of his troops as soon as he judged that that general was in possession of the suburb. At the same time, however, he caught sight of a Neapolitan column, of not less than 3,000 men, which, having debouched from the bridge of La Maddalena, was marching past our left, and endeavouring to join some bodies of insurgents which were watching us in our rear. He at once ordered me to take one battalion and one hundred chasseurs, and drive it back into Naples. Being much nearer to it than it was to its objective point, I could attack the head or the tail, of it as I pleased, and I marched upon its left, so that it could not possibly fight without manoeuvring. This gave me a decisive advantage, since it could not move without exposing a flank to my cavalry. No sooner was my intention perceived than it halted, and a moment later, not even daring to retire by La Maddalena, it withdrew towards the spurs of Vesuvius, whither I had no motive for pursuing it. I had only needed to engage my skirmishers. As for my squadron, I took care not to risk it against 3,000 men, who were marching in good enough order to convince me that some of them were regular troops. Half an hour sufficed to make sure that they would not return, and I rejoined General Duhesme.