The Eagles of the battlefields of the age of Napoleon
The genius of Napoleon did not confine itself to his skill as a strategist and tactician on campaign or battlefield. He understood the nature of men, what motivated them and what symbols could drive them to the achievement of his own ambitions. He had embraced the symbolism of revolution himself and understood the powerful influence of the aspiration of equality and brotherhood for the proletariat. When his ambitions for the First Empire came to realisation, Napoleon looked to a new identity for the French nation equal to his personality and objectives. There could be no better example from which to draw inspiration or which to emulate than that of the eagle of Imperial Rome. This permeated every aspect of the culture of the Napoleonic epoch from clothing to furnishings to the fine arts and architecture, but nowhere was it more powerful than in its adoption by the armed forces. All knew of the significance of the Roman Eagles to the ancient legions. Men marched behind it, rallied to it, fought to protect it and died in its defence. In 1804 Napoleon—the new Caesar—introduced the eagle banner to his own regiments. As in ancient times these martial birds of prey, of pride and victory, came to represent the collective souls of the men who called them their own. This is the story of Napoleon’s eagles; here are the campaigns and battles in which they were held high and accounts of what befell them there. This is a story of triumph and defeat, of tragedy and self sacrificing heroism. These are the standards that men fought to hold and died in the attempt to take. Previously published as The War Drama of the Eagles.
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A hundred and fifty thousand combatants had faced one another at daybreak. An hour before midnight, when the last shots were fired, 50,000 men lay dead or wounded on the field. “Never,” if we may recall the grim picture of the scene next day that Alison has drawn, “was spectacle so dreadful as that field presented on the following morning. Above 50,000 men lay in the space of two leagues, weltering in blood. The wounds were, for the most part, of the severest kind, from the extraordinary quantity of cannonballs which had been discharged during the action and the close proximity of the contending masses to the deadly batteries, which spread grape at half-musket shot through their ranks. Though stretched on the cold snow and exposed to the severity of an Arctic winter, the sufferers were burning with thirst, and piteous cries were heard on all sides for water, or assistance to extricate the wounded men from beneath the heaps of slain or load of horses by which they were crushed.
“Six thousand of these noble animals encumbered the field, or, maddened with pain, were shrieking aloud amidst the stifled groans of the wounded. Broken gun-carriages, dismounted cannon, fragments of blown-up caissons, scattered balls, lay in wild confusion amidst casques, cuirassiers, and burning hamlets, casting a livid light over a field of snow. Subdued by loss of blood, tamed by cold, exhausted by hunger, the foemen lay side by side, amidst the general wreck. The cossack was to be seen beside the Italian; the gay vine-dresser from the banks of the Garonne lay athwart the stern peasant from the plains of the Ukraine.”
When Napoleon took his ride over the field, “the men exhibited none of their wonted enthusiasm; no cries of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ were heard; the bloody surface echoed only with the cries of suffering or the groans of woe.”
Sixteen Russian standards were sent to Paris after Eylau; Napoleon’s set-off to the twelve Eagles taken to St. Petersburg. They were to be hung, he directed, temporarily at the Invalides, until such time as the conversion of the former Church of the Madeleine into Napoleon’s grandiose “Temple of Victory” should be effected—a project that was fated never to be accomplished. There, designed Napoleon, all the trophies of the Grand Army would find their final resting-place, in a splendid edifice, designed externally after the Parthenon at Athens. Within, the trophies would be displayed, amidst colonnades of Corinthian pillars of marble and granite and a mass of decorative sculptures, statues of marshals and generals who had met their death in battle, and bas-reliefs of famous colonels, before a lofty marble curule chair, which Napoleon would occupy as a throne on great occasions.
“It is a Temple I desire,” he laid down, writing from his camp in Poland, “not a church; and everything must be made in a chaste, severe, and durable style, and be suitable for solemnities at all times and all hours.”
Two more Eagles had yet to go to St. Petersburg before the war was over—the Eagle of the 15th of the Line and another. They were the spoils that the beaten Russian army carried off from the battle of Friedland, fought some six months after Eylau, on July 14. Napoleon won one of his most famous victories at Friedland, and one that he afterwards recorded on the colours of all the regiments that fought in the battle; but the defeated army carried back with them two more of his Eagles.
The Eagle of the 15th of the Line, a regiment of Marshal Ney’s corps, was lost in a bayonet charge while fighting the Russian Imperial Guard. The second Eagle was left among the dead in the repulse of a column of Marshal Lannes’ corps in the earlier part of the battle. “A column of 3,000 men advanced straight against Friedland. They were permitted to approach close to the Russian cannon without a single shot being fired, when suddenly the whole opened with grape, and with such effect that in a few minutes a thousand men were struck down, the column routed, and the Eagle taken.”
One of the regiments of the column saved itself as it fell back by rallying round its Eagle. As at Eylau, so at Friedland the Russian dragoons dashed down among the broken battalions while trying to re-form under the murderous cannonade. The 50th of the Line had been near the head of the column, and more than half of its men had been shot down. The dragoons were cutting their way through to the Eagle, when Adjutant Labourie snatched it from its wounded bearer, and, holding it up, shouted to the men: “Rally round the Eagle. We must defend it to the death!” A small square hastily formed round him, and, stubbornly resisting, they kept the Russian dragoons off and fought their way back to safety with the Eagle.