Jean Baptiste Gazzola's memoir of his life in Napoleon's cavalry regiments is a remarkable and exhilarating one. He tells his story vividly-almost certainly with advantages-for it is one of passionate love affairs, attempted murder, duels, flight from retribution, hard campaigning and violent battles. This Italian centaur joined the Revolutionary French Army in the early days of Napoleon's career, for engagements in his home country before departing for Egypt-and thereafter many of the pivotal battles of the age culminating in the retreat from Moscow, where, left behind, wounded and frost-bitten, he ends his military career when taken into captivity by the Russians. Gazzola wins his first award as a member of the 'forlorn hope' at Mantua and then-donning the spurs of the horse soldier-he becomes a mounted grenadier of the Consular Guard. Service in Chasseurs a Cheval regiments follow before he once again joins the heavy cavalry of the Imperial Guard for the campaigns that closed the epoch of the First Empire. Whilst it is sometimes difficult to decide what may be fact and what fantastical-not an uncommon feature of the military memoir-there is no doubt that this is an absorbing and entertaining excursion into both the world and life of a cavalryman of the Grande Armee.
The battle now became general, the other divisions of the army being engaged. In the meanwhile we had plenty of work on our hands, for the body of Mamelukes whom we had observed on the right of the Arab infantry, with which we had been engaged, and who had seemed to look on unconcerned during our attack, now put themselves in motion, and crossing the plain at full gallop, reined suddenly up before our regiment had time to get into line, and charging us independently, many of our men bit the dust, and the conflict became hand to hand. The Mamelukes, to the amount of 12,000, were now engaged, their whole force being concentrated on the right. In vain they penetrated even to the very squares, charging up to the point of the bayonet, the most daring bravery availed them not, and the field was soon covered with the slain.<br>
It was here that my early devotion to the foil stood me in some stead, for in the melée that ensued, I found myself opposed to one of these turbaned gentry, who, in addition to a quick eye and ready hand, united great personal strength to dexterity in the management of his horse. Twice had my sabre drawn blood from his arm, and twice had he escaped a blow I intended should be fatal; the event was still uncertain, I had an antagonist who was not so easily subdued; I who had seldom met my match in the salle, was here foiled by an untutored son of the desert. I was beginning to lose my temper—a loss that would in all probability have been soon followed by that of my life—when a stray ball struck my antagonist’s horse, causing him to stumble, before he could recover himself my sword cleft his skull, and I drew from his pockets many a glittering piece of gold, besides acquiring a rich sabre and a magnificent pair of pistols.<br>
In the mean while the other divisions advanced and carried the entrenchments at Embabè at the point of the bayonet, after great carnage on the enemy, who fled on all sides, abandoning their dead and wounded, together with their artillery, 400 camels, and a great quantity of baggage, and horses richly caparisoned.
The other portion of the Mamelukes were defeated by Dessaix in an attempt to carry Bilkil by a coup-de-main. The route was complete, and on my returning to the village, of Boulak, which had been given up to the troops, I beheld scenes which made the carnage of the battle field pleasureable when compared with them, and well nigh disgusted me with the men with whom I had so long associated.
I had witnessed carnage enough, Heaven knows, in my time; had seen sufficient of the horrors of a siege, at Mantua; but my wound had spared me the sack at Alexandria, and happy should I have been to escape seeing one here. No imagination can picture, no pen describe the state of a place abandoned to the mercies of an infuriated soldiery; and surely no soldiery in the world can equal the French in the brutality of their actions; the atrocities of their cruelty. Rapine and plunder go hand in hand; the most brutal passions are inflamed; the most demoniacal desires gratified; no age nor sex was spared. The night had far advanced before the bugles sounded the recall, and the village had been fired in twenty places, ere the work of carnage had ceased in Boulak.