Marshal Oudinot—soldier of the First Empire of France
Nicholas Charles Oudinot, 1st Comte Oudinot, Duc de Reggio and Marshal of Napoleon Bonaparte’s France was not born in the unusual style of the great men of the First Empire, but far from the opportunities that might lead to greatness. One of nine children and the son of a brewer, distiller and farmer in Lorraine, Oudinot served as an ordinary soldier during the 1780s eventually resigning with the rank of sergeant after despairing of failing to achieve further promotion. The French Revolution then cast opportunity at his feet as only great social turmoil can and created the chance to rise through merit in ways impossible during the days of the old regime it swept aside. As a lieutenant colonel of volunteers in 1793 his action in the defence of the fort at Bitsch brought him to the notice of influential commanders and he was transferred to the regular army where recognition for his talent in numerous actions, but particularly at Kaiserslautern in 1794, won him promotion to general of brigade. Now Oudinot began to keep company with the great soldiers of France and he proved himself consistently on the battlefield, rising to inspector general of infantry and winning both the sword of honour and the grand cross of the Legion of Honour. By 1809 Oudinot had joined the elite ranks of the Marshals of France. He fought at Schongrabern, decisively at Austerlitz, at Friedland, Wagram, on the Russian Campaign, Lutzen, Bautzen, Leipzig and in the campaign to Napoleon’s fall in 1814. Oudinot supported the Bourbon Restoration and did not rally to his former master’s flag during the Hundred Days. This account of the Marshal’s life and career is ably assisted by contributions from his wife. This book is, of course, essential reading for all those interested in the Napoleonic age and especially in the actions of its most outstanding military figures.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
It was on this fatal day and during the subsequent night that the thermometer fell from 18° to 28° below zero!<br>
We left Victor behind, to our great regret; but he wished to wait for the chance of official instructions arriving. General Pajol had gone ahead of us. General de Lorencez, retained by the shadowy remnant of the 2nd Corps, of which he represented the staff, was one of the last to take the road for France.<br>
The marshal was carefully packed into my comfortable carriage, with me by his side and Madame Morel opposite, while my uncle and Messieurs de Bourcet, Jacqueminot and Capiomont installed themselves in the marshal’s carriage, which was much less roomy than the other. The three last were attacked in different degrees by dysentery, one of the diseases which were ravaging the army; and a fourth victim of this scourge came and asked their pity, saying that the place on the box which was destined for him would be his death. This was M. Rouget, the marshal’s maître d’hôtel. The four of them were already crowded; but, as I have said, the word impossible did not then exist. They made room for the unhappy man, who sometimes on his knees in the midst of them, sometimes partly stretched upon their knees, twisted about in pain, and aroused all their commiseration.<br>
The box of this second carriage was occupied by two of our servants; on the box of ours sat Pils and the cook. After we had taken a sad farewell of Victor and of all the half-frozen wounded who crowded into our apartments at the moment of departure, the carriage-doors were closed. It was time, for the cold was already nipping us.<br>
The carriages moved and soon scattered the snow like dust. We had an escort of twenty cuirassiers, perfectly mounted, and wrapped in their great white mantles. But except a few white-faced Jews shivering as they hastened to their speculations, with which nothing ever interfered, we encountered not a living being on our way through the streets of that town which I had entered with so glad a heart two months before.<br>
Brave M. Le Tellier, with his phantom face, declaring himself the soundest of his comrades, had wished to perform the service of this terrible day, and he galloped actively beside our carriage. He kept his place while, little by little, I beheld the number of cuirassiers of our escort diminish. Did a single one reach our first bivouac? I am unable to say, because the night put an end to all observation. I only remember that the last two soldiers I was able to see had their long moustaches stiffened by the icicles formed from their breath.<br>
Soon all grew confused in the darkness, but not too soon, however, to prevent me, when we reached the foot of the well-known mountain which we had to ascend, from distinguishing the soldiers lying stiff and stark along all the slope which they had vainly endeavoured to climb. They had fallen down, overcome by the cold; and there, when one fell, he did not get up again. . . . A few pools of blood had escaped from their chests and nostrils and stained red the snow.<br>
Nothing has ever been able to efface from my mind the terrible impression I retained of this ascent across this field strewn with the dead. And yet it was but the commencement of the end.<br>
Our rough-shod horses quickly surmounted this steep and forbidding incline, and soon we had left the awful spectacle behind us. The marshal kept a profound silence; he felt instinctively all that I must suffer from what I saw; but he suffered too deeply himself to question me. We went like the wind along this table-land, which we had traversed with so much difficulty a few weeks ago. But the snow had smoothed the roads . . . <br>
Soon I was able to distinguish nothing upon its whiteness save the figure of M. Le Tellier, who continued to gallop by the carriage door. I could not say exactly at what time he stopped the carriage, crying that he was going to prepare a lodging for us in a building of which he had caught sight. He soon returned. “Quick, Madame la maréchale,” he said, opening the carriage door, “out you come.” Seized by a horrible feeling of this deathly temperature, I asked myself how my wounded husband would bear it. Our unfortunate servants, stiffened by the cold on their outside seats, nevertheless retained the energy to do their duty. The marshal was carried upon one of his mattresses, and we moved towards a kind of shapeless shed, which at a distance seemed to me to be surrounded by a number of great black circles drawn upon that eternal snow. They consisted of men, who were all still moving then; but the next day . . .<br>
The half-burnt post-house which M. Le Tellier made us enter had been crowded during the daytime not only by those who were returning from the army and who had been able to resist the cold so far, but by those who were travelling in the opposite direction, and who had come from Königsberg in order to rejoin what they still called the army. It was the staff and the last portion of Loison’s division, which the emperor had sent for. The general and his officers had sought shelter in this house, the only one left standing on that devastated road, and part of it had been demolished to provide firewood for the bivouac which we saw before us.<br>
So great was the crowd that M. Le Tellier had the greatest difficulty in penetrating. He struck some and stepped upon others, shouting to everyone that Marshal Oudinot, who was dying, was also entitled to a place. No one listened; no one made way or moved. He stormed in vain; but before long he perceived that several among them were dying, and some already dead. He tried to drag outside a number of the latter, so as to make room for us; but those who remained took advantage of his exertions and, with the brutal selfishness which was the only sentiment left to most of them, stretched themselves more at their ease.<br>
However, after crossing the first room in which reigned this frightful confusion, we penetrated to the second, which was filled with General Loison’s officers. These were so closely packed that they could neither lie down nor sit, and they stood up so as to occupy less room, including the general, who, in the name of my husband, obtained just sufficient room to lay before the fire the little mattress upon which he reclined. I sat down at the foot of the mattress. The other occupants of our two carriages found shelter somehow, as did also poor Mme. Abramowietz, who, driving alone in her calash, had followed our fortunes.<br>
Dr Capiomont tried to dress the sick man’s wound; but everything froze beneath his hands, and he had to give up the attempt. We tried to use the provisions brought on one side from Wilna and on the other from Königsberg; but everything—bread, wine, ham, poultry—was frozen, and could not be thawed even when put before the stove. A slight dampness was all that appeared on the outside of the eatables; the inside remained as hard as stone.<br>
None of us who were packed into this room were able to sleep, since it was a condition of admittance that one should remain standing. For a moment I saw General Loison, who was standing over us, close his eyes and sway to and fro above our heads. His fall would have crushed us, and I thought it best to warn him.<br>
We suffered so much where we were that it was easy to imagine how things were going outside: we felt Death all around us. . . . The fire in the stove grew low for want of fuel; but where and how to find any? It was almost risking one’s life. That good Dr. Capiomont ventured out, however, and I can still see him returning in triumph with a part of a cannon-wheel, which blazed up and gave us the necessary energy at the moment of departure.<br>
Again it was M. Le Tellier who came to give us the signal. Day had not yet broken; but it was high time to restore to movement our people and our horses, which had escaped by a miracle from the disasters of the night. Besides, the snow showed up only too well all that surrounded us. The marshal was carried quickly to his carriage; but however briskly the rest of us followed him, we had plenty of time in which to take in the sight that met our eyes. The bivouacs of the night before stood out black against the snow; but all was extinct and motionless. How many of the men were dead? How many dying? I know not; but it is notorious that this night of the 7th of December 1812 was one of the most deadly, and that its ravages on the remains of our army were terrible.