The battles of the destruction of an empire Marbot returns to regimental life at the head of a regiment of Chasseurs a Cheval. The fulfilment of ambition of his career is all but realised just in time for his involvement in Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia and the harrowing retreat from Moscow. We experience through Marbots words and the campaigns that follow the events which brought about the fall of Napoleon. Marbots memoirs have been available to readers in a heavily edited form but this volume enables everyone to enjoy its principal character’s personal experiences to the full. All are worth reading and Marbot’s penmanship never fails to carry his reader excitingly through them.
The Russians then sent in a swarm of Cossacks, who came impudently to attack with their lances the French officers who stood before their troops. Seeing this, Marshal Ney ordered general Maison to chase them off, using what remained of the division of Cuirassiers and also Corbineau’s and Castex’s brigades. My regiment, which was still numerically strong, was confronted by a tribe of Cossacks from the Black Sea, wearing tall astrakhan hats, and much better clad and mounted than the usual run of Cossacks. We engaged them, but as it is not their custom to stand and fight in line, they turned round and made off at the gallop. However, not knowing the locality they headed for an obstacle which is very unusual in these enormous plains, a large, deep gully, which owing to the perfect flatness of the surrounding country could not be distinguished from any distance. This pulled them up short, and seeing that they could not get across with their horses, they bunched together and turned to present to us their lances.
The ground, covered by frost, was very slippery, and our over-tired horses could not gallop without falling. There was, therefore, no question of a charge, and my line advanced at a trot towards the massed enemy, who remained motionless. Our sabres could touch their lances, but as they are thirteen or fourteen feet long, we could not reach our foes, who could not retreat for fear of falling into the gulch, and could not advance without encountering our swords. We were thus face to face, regarding one another when, in less time than it takes to tell, this is what happened.
Anxious to get to grips with the enemy, I shouted to my troops to grab some of the lances with their left hands and pushing them to one sided get into the middle of this crowd of men, where our short weapons would give us an enormous advantage over their long spears. To encourage them to obey, I wanted to set an example, so dodging several lances, I managed to reach the front rank of the enemy. My warrant officers and my orderlies followed me, and soon the whole regiment. There then ensued a general mêlée; but at the moment when it started, an old white-bearded Cossack, who was in the rear rank and separated from me by some of his comrades, lent forward and thrusting his lance skillfully between the horses he drove the sharp steel into my right knee, which it pierced, passing through beneath the kneecap.
Enraged by the pain of this injury, I was pushing my way towards the man to take my revenge, when I was confronted by two handsome youths of about eighteen to twenty, wearing brilliant costumes, covered with rich embroidery, who were the sons of the chieftain of this clan. They were accompanied by an elderly man who was some sort of tutor, but who was unarmed. The younger of his two pupils did not draw his sword, but elder did and attacked me furiously. I found him so immature and lacking strength that I did no more than disarm him, and taking his arm pushed him behind me, telling Van Berchem to look after him. I had hardly done this when a double explosion rang in my ears and the collar of my cape was torn by a ball. I turned round quickly, to see the young Cossack officer holding a pair of double-barrelled pistols with which he had treacherously tried to shoot me in the back and had blown out the brains of the unfortunate Van Berchem!
In a transport of rage I hurled myself at this rash stripling, who was already aiming his second pistol at me. Seeing death in my face, he seemed momentarily paralysed. He cried out some words in French. But I killed him.
Blood calls for blood. The sight of young Van Berchem lying dead at my feet, the act I had just carried out, the excitement of battle and the pain of my wound, combined to induce a sort of frenzy. I rushed at the younger of the Cossack officers and grabbing him by the throat I had already raised my sabre when his elderly mentor, to protect his charge, laid the length of his body on my horses neck in a manner which prevented me from striking a blow and called out, “Mercy! In the name of your mother, have mercy! He has done nothing!”
On hearing this appeal, in spite of the scenes around me, I seemed to see the white hand I knew so well, laid on the young man’s breast and to hear my mother’s gentle voice saying,”Be merciful”. I lowered my sabre and sent the youth and his guardian to the rear.The enemy, having infiltrated both flanks and even the rear of our detachment, had mounted a frontal attack by a greatly superior force, so that some 700 to 800 Prussian lancers surrounded our 150 men, whose only way of retreat was over a wretched footbridge of wooden planks which joined the two steep banks of a nearby mill-stream. Our horsemen could cross here only one by one so that there was congestion, and the elite company lost several men. A number of riders then noticed a large farmyard which they thought might lead to the mill-stream, and in the hope of finding a bridge they entered it, followed by the rest of the detachment. The stream did in fact, run past the farmyard, but it there formed the mill-pool, the banks of which were lined by slippery flagstones, making access extremely difficult for horses. This gave the enemy a great advantage, and in an attempt to capture all the French who had entered this huge yard, they closed the gates.
It was at this critical moment that I appeared on the other side of the stream with the squadron which I had hurriedly brought with me. I ordered them to dismount, and while one man held four horses, the rest, armed with their carbines, ran to the footbridge, which was guarded by a squadron of Prussians. The Prussians being on horseback and having only a few pistols as firearms, were unable to reply to the sustained fire from the carbines of our Chasseurs, and were forced to remove themselves to a distance of several hundred paces, leaving behind some forty dead and wounded.
The troops who had been shut in the farmyard wanted to take advantage of this momentary respite to force the main gate and make a rush for it on horseback; but I called to them not to attempt it, because to join me they would have had to cross the footbridge, which they could do only one by one, and at this point they would offer a target to the Prussians who would undoubtedly charge and destroy them. The river banks were garnished by many trees, amongst which an infantrymen can easily withstand the attacks of cavalry, so I placed the dismounted men along the riverside and once they were in communication with the mill’s yard, I passed a message to the men there to dismount also, take their carbines, and while a hundred of them held off the enemy by their fire, the remainder could slip behind this protective screen and pass the horses from hand to hand over the footbridge.
While this manoeuvre, covered by the fire from a cordon of 180 dismounted Chasseurs, was proceeding in an orderly fashion, the Prussian lancers, furious that their prey was about to escape, tried to disorganise our retreat by a vigourous attack, but their horses, caught up in the willow branches, amid the numerous holes and pools of water, could scarcely move at a walk over the muddy ground, and could never reach our foot-soldiers, whose well aimed fire, directed at close range, inflicted on them heavy losses.
The Prussian major who led this charge, forcing his way boldly into the centre of our line, killed with a pistol shot to the head, Lieutenant Bachelet, one of my good regimental officers. I greatly regretted his loss, which was, however promptly revenged by the Chasseurs of his section, for the Prussian major, hit by several bullets, fell dead beside him.