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The Long March to Paris

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The Long March to Paris
Leonaur Original
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Author(s): Henrik Steffens
Date Published: 2010/11
Page Count: 164
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-404-2
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-403-5

A unique perspective on the Napoleonic epoch

Extremely rare, even on the antiquarian market, this book is possibly unique, among those few published accounts of this era translated into English, as a first hand account of the years of Napoleon’s wars in central Europe as experienced and reported on by a civilian who subsequently became an officer of the Prussian Army. The author of this dual perspective, Henry Steffens, was a Danish national and academic and in this book he describes his experiences, beginning with a short resume of his early life, the coming of the French Revolution and his observations of the French Army in the field. Shortly after his marriage, he moved with his family to Halle in Germany to take up a post at the University. In 1805 the Battle of Aüerstadt swept the defeated Prussian Army through the city whilst Steffens, clutching his newborn child, found himself running for his life as Bernadotte’s infantry hounded their fleeing foes through the streets. Steffens later involved himself in subversive operations against the French including a conspiracy to assassinate the Emperor and was instrumental in raising a corps of volunteers as direct action became inevitable. An intimate of Scharnhorst among other notables of his day, Steffens joined the Prussian Army as a junior officer of Guard Chasseurs. Subsequently joining Blucher’s staff (the old general called him affectionately ‘Mr. Professor’) as an intelligence officer, Steffens served through the campaigns of 1813-14. He saw action at Görschen, Bautzen, on attachment with the Russian Army, at the Battle of Leipzig, Champaubert (Montmirail) and the battle for and occupation of Paris in 1814. This book was originally entitled, ‘Adventures on the Road to Paris,’ but has been re-titled in this Leonaur edition to give the reader a view of its wider subject matter. Available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket for collectors.

Alas! we were not left long in our mistake. The enemy came on in larger masses; our troops fell back; we saw Prussians flying in terror even along the banks of the river close by our wall; and then everyone hastened in dismay towards his own dwelling; mine, in a remote, thinly inhabited quarter of the town, was considered both by myself and friends to be very much exposed; we hastily resolved to take refuge in Schleiermacher’s, and hurried home to fetch our child. Gass led Schleiermacher’s sister, Schleiermacher took my wife, and I followed with the nurse who carried the child. But we had lingered for too many precious moments at our home. We passed down the long street in greatest haste. Shots were fired in the town, and the streets through which we passed were still empty; every house was closed; in one place only I saw a workman tearing down hastily a tempting sign.<br>
The nurse was herself a mother; she trembled, and though she tried to get on, she could scarcely hold the child; I threw its cloak over my shoulder, seized it, and hurried forwards. When we arrived where the street widens into a small square which opens on the market-place, we saw at once the danger which we had to meet. The Prussian reserve were retreating through the town; the centre of the market-place was filled with the cannon and ammunition of the fugitives, which a crowd of soldiers were trying to get away. We heard firing in the streets which led from the Saale and the market-place; and I saw that we must cross the stream of the flying mass at right angles. How we got through unhurt I cannot tell. In such moments thought is changed into a sort of blind instinct, and every power is concentrated in the immediate struggle for self-preservation.<br>
We had crossed the market-place and were near the Mecker-street, where Schleiermacher lived. That street leads from the market-place at a corner which is common both to it and to the street, now the Leipzig-street, in which the pursuit was farthest. Once within sight of my street of refuge, I turned round to look for a moment; I was amazed to see the market-place empty; artillery and ammunition-waggons had vanished as if by magic, but the enemy were still pouring in thick masses from the streets which led from the Saale; a few Prussian soldiers were still flying hastily, and there was a general firing from the enemy in the direction of the retreat.<br>
The balls whistled past my ears; I was but a few steps from the sheltering street, and yet for some moments I feared that I and the child should be cut off from it by the pursuing enemy. As we got under the protection of the houses we saw the little savage-looking men of Bernadotte’s advanced guard (by-named “The Brimstone Corps.”) rush close by us; but they were intent only on the flying Prussians. We reached the house; all was quiet in the street; the closed door was hastily opened for us, and for once we were saved.<br>
But our repose was short, for the street lay too near the course of the pursuit: detached soldiers, both infantry and cavalry, were plundering in the neighbouring streets. The event had come so suddenly upon us, brought up as we had been in times of peace, that we knew not how to meet it or what to do. The street was narrow; some soldiers had penetrated in to the opposite house and were taking all they could lay hands on but they were plainly themselves in fear, for they made off when the people of the house called to us across the street. At last our door was knocked at: it was three or four horsemen who demanded entrance, but we took no notice.<br>
They called out that they would be satisfied with a few glasses of wine given through the window. We determined foolishly to let them have it, though no one was willing to be the person to hand it over. I offered to do it, and the window was opened, but what you might have expected happened. A dragoon held a pistol to my head and threatened to shoot me if we did not unbar the door. We were obliged to do it, and the robbers rushed in. My watch was their first booty; I had no money in my pocket; some money and linen were hastily collected by Schleiermacher. On the desk among some papers lay the travelling money of the chaplain, Gass. They tossed about the papers, but, strange to say, missed seeing the money: we were then left undisturbed and had time to think of our position. <br><br>


I rode forward, and looked about. That the battle was still raging near Gross-Görschen was proved by the tremendous cannonade of the enemy. I had no idea where to find Wittgenstein. Everything round me seemed confused, and as if I was covered with a veil. I felt a tottering, a swimming, which sprang from my inmost soul, and increased every moment. I was plainly seized with a panic—the cannon fever. I found Wittgenstein notwithstanding, and delivered my message; and as I returned I met the detachment of my own volunteers, who as yet had taken no part in the engagement, but expected orders every instant to advance. I described to them under all the excitement of the moment exactly what I had seen and experienced. The young men listened with thirsting curiosity.<br>
It is well known how they distinguished themselves that day by their daring valour. When I rejoined Gneisenau all was in active engagement, every man knowing his duty and working hard in his appointed place. Nobody of course troubled themselves about me, and the feeling of my inability overwhelmed me, whilst I was obliged to stand there a mere useless looker-on. I perceived Scharnhorst carried wounded away; I had lost sight of Gneisenau. I was surrounded by strangers, and I found myself at last alone, with the enemy’s balls howling around me.<br>
There are several sorts of courage as well as reasons for its failure. I was on the battlefield for the first time, not only without any distinct duty, but contrary to the orders of my commanding officer. To the consciousness of this I attribute the uncontrollable panic which seized me, yet I never entertained an idea of retiring from the scene; such a possibility did not once occur to me, and I managed to collect my senses so as to observe what passed for the space of two hours. Sometimes the fight in and about Gross-Görschen came nearer to me, and I saw the Prussian cavalry exposed to the fire from the guns. I saw how their ranks thinned, and how, as here one and there another was unhorsed, with frightful wounds, the rest quietly closed up and filled the spaces.<br>
At length I found myself late in the evening again with Gneisenau, and close to the village. He, who must have noticed my agitation, was himself perfectly calm and cheerful, notwithstanding that the issue of the day was still uncertain. “Steffens,” said he, turning to me, “is not that a grand cannonade? it is to celebrate your birthday.” He had passed the last anniversary with me in my house; that he should remember and joke upon it at such a moment struck me as wonderful. As it became dark I joined Major von Schutz at a bivouac fire, and there heard of the advance of our cavalry, which attempted a charge against the enemy. That charge failed; and although we maintained possession of the field from which the enemy had withdrawn, it was determined that we should retire towards Pegau.<br>
I rode in the dark by the side of Schutz to the edge of a rather steep declivity by which our troops were marching in slow and perfect order, while other detachments were reposing by the bivouac fires, which lighted up the trees. The impression of such a scene, which afterwards became familiar to me, was at first very striking. We reached the little town in the middle of the night; it was crammed with troops, but we got a tolerable lodging, and through intelligent officers who had been in the engagement I got some general insight into the events of the day and their results. This was most welcome; for hitherto all was mystery and confusion to my understanding. The object of the great contest, as it had engrossed me for so long, again rose clearly to my perception, and I felt convinced that I should not meet a second battle as I had done the first.<br>
In spite of our retreat we looked on the affair as a success, for the troops had stood bravely against Napoleon, and a most valiant spirit pervaded the whole army. Satisfied with our position, and reconciled with myself, I slept.<br>
On the 3rd of May I joined Blücher in Borna, and found the troops in regular march, all in close order, as if going to meet an enemy; nothing betrayed the appearance of a retreat. Blücher had received a slight wound, but was in high spirits. Prince William was with him, and remembered that he had seen me early in the fight, and I received compliments which were far from being due to me, and which made me feel ashamed, though I trusted and believed that, had I been in the performance of some active duty, I should have found my courage much more manageable than it had been in my idle position.<br>
For the first days the retreat was continued over a sandy level. Blücher was in the midst of the troops as they proceeded leisurely. The army was in such perfect order that many considered the retreat an unnecessary disgrace, and as this opinion was rather boldly expressed, it came to Blücher’s ears, who thought it necessary to address the troops about it. This was my first opportunity of admiring his astonishing eloquence. The substance of the speech is generally known, for it was published to appease the whole army, as well as to tranquillize the people.<br>
“You are right,” I heard him say, “you are not beaten—you kept the field, and the enemy withdrew; their loss was greater than yours;” <br><br>********<br><br>Blücher’s headquarters were in the village of Möckern; all were yet sleeping when I got there. It would convey a false idea of the scene in Blücher’s vicinity were it to be supposed that anything like haste or confusion was to be perceived there. Though so great a battle was certain to be fought—though all felt that on its issue the fate of the whole war depended, there was yet no trace of any such important crisis near the great commander. Every officer rose and dressed himself leisurely and carefully; the few washing utensils at command were taken to the wells, and when used by some were instantly claimed by the servants of others to be replenished.<br>
The windows were opened and laid back on the walls, to serve for looking-glasses. Coffee was brought in; some drank from the cups and some from the saucers. Any little difficulty or accident was seized on to give a cheerful turn to the remarks, but these were never extended to the great event which was impending; they spoke on indifferent subjects, even of gay recollections, and a joke was seized on and passed round with thankful eagerness; to a superficial observer they might have seemed like men who were preparing to pursue a journey, and were amusing themselves with the little miseries of an uncomfortable night’s lodging.<br>
On that day we did not move out very early. Blücher had joined himself to General Langeron’s division, and we found these preparing to pass the Parthe. On the other side of that river the ground rises; there a wonderful spectacle presented itself.<br>
Over the long distant line of rising ground we beheld the French army in movement, and it soon covered the whole range of hills. It was the multitude bound to the man who had subdued the continent and ruled it so long by the terror of his name, now led by him to battle. The columns continued to emerge from the eastern horizon; infantry, cavalry, and artillery glided along in order, and now and then the arms glanced in the newly-risen sunbeams. The whole army seemed like a mighty vision in a dream; fresh hosts continued to rise in the east; still they continued to vanish from our sight far to the west, as the great unbroken mass moved on and on.<br>
We stood long in breathless amazement; then it was that Müffling gave the name to the approaching fight—he called it the great “Nation’s battle” (Völkerschlacht): the name now belongs to history. We were posted on a plain many miles in extent; troops were round us in every direction. General von York was fighting before Leipzig with the remains of his valiant corps. All around we heard the roar of fierce engagement, but we saw nothing, and remained there stationary the greater part of the day; while adjutants, who were constantly sent to the different corps, brought us back, every few minutes, reports of the progress of the fight from every point.<br>
More than 300,000 men were brought by the allies into the field; 170,000 fought against us. Our ground, as I have said, was a large open plain. Leipzig lay just before us in the distance. It was a strange day to me, passed in such perfect rest in the very centre of a great battle; but the hours flew rapidly; the constant arrival of news kept us in such intense excitement. We heard that at Möckern the enemy had attacked Blücher’s division, considering it justly as the centre point of the great moral strength of our whole army.<br>
Napoleon himself led on the attack; he believed that any advantage gained over the most renowned of his enemies would help to subdue the spirits of the whole host. He then brought a half-dispirited army to meet an immensely superior force, yet his great mind had still power to animate his troops; he knew the greatness of the stake. His soldiers fought as daringly as if sure of victory. I must pay the homage of admiration to a hero who made his effort for existence with such daring courage.<br>
This battle also was fought under a brilliant sky. One of the scenes of that eventful day was striking. We discerned a large body of cavalry advance from the enemy’s lines in perfect order. There were no troops immediately near the point they advanced upon, and we waited quietly for their coming up; no doubt Blücher was advised of their intentions. They proved to be the Saxon cavalry, who had left the enemy and come over to us. They stood looking resolved, but, as I thought, humbled before us. The commander came forward and approached Blücher, who received him with dignity.<br>
The Saxon officer stated that they had long waited for the moment when they might free themselves from the compulsion of bearing arms against their countrymen; it had come at length. Yet they craved one indulgence: they wished not to fight in that battle. Their unhappy king was in Leipzig, in a house in the great market-place, which would soon be in our power. Blücher addressed them shortly, but very kindly, granted their request, and appointed them a position behind the army. I felt for them as they marched by; I imagined all the distress of their position. But all the events of that day, from the first, when the great host passed before my wondering sight, up to that last scene, seemed like a splendid act in a Shakespearian drama, suddenly grown into a living truth.