The life and times of one of Napoleon’s most dashing horsemen Marbot has left those interested in the Napoleonic Wars an incomparable and highly readable account of the life and campaigns of a French cavalryman which spans his career from enlistment as a young Hussar to senior officer at Waterloo. Conan-Doyle based his famous Brigadier Gerard on Marbot and that fictional cavalryman’s character shines through on these pages. Marbot’s expansive recollections begin here as a young Hussar with a ‘painted’ moustache and sweeps the reader through the very pages of history, encounters with Napoleon and graphically related battlefield experiences – engaging told by a soldier with a ‘good stock of courage’ - if he says so himself.
This was before the great charge made by Murat and his cavalry, and it was almost impossible to carry out the Emperor’s command because a swarm of Cossacks separated us from the 14th. It was clear that any officer sent towards the unfortunate regiment would be killed or captured before he got there. Nevertheless, an order is an order; and the marshal had to obey.
It was the custom, in the imperial army, for the aides to line up a few paces from their general, and the one in front went off first; when he had completed his mission, he joined the back of the queue, so that as each took his turn to carry orders, the dangers were shared equally. A brave captain of engineers, named Froissart, who, although not an aide-de-camp, was attached to the marshal’s staff, was nearest to him and was sent off to carry the order to the 14th. He left at the gallop; we lost sight of him in the midst of the Cossacks and never saw him again, nor did we know what became of him.
The marshal, seeing that the 14th did not budge, sent another officer, named David. He suffered the same fate as Froissart, and we heard no more of him. It is likely that they were both killed, and having been stripped of their clothing their bodies were not recognisable among the many dead who covered the ground. For the third time the marshal called out “An officer to take orders “!...It was my turn.
When he saw before him the son of his old friend, and, I think I may dare to say, his favourite aide-de-camp, the good marshal’s face fell and his eyes filled with tears, for he could not disguise from himself that he was sending me to an almost certain death; but the Emperor’s order had to be obeyed; I was a soldier; no one else could take my place, I would not have allowed something so dishonourable. So I took off! Now, while prepared to sacrifice my life, I thought it my duty to take every precaution which might save it. I had noticed that the two officers who had gone before me had left with drawn sabres, which made me think that they intended to defend themselves against the Cossacks who would attack them during the ride. This intention was in my opinion ill-advised, for they would have been forced to stop and fight a multitude of enemies who, in the end, had overwhelmed them. I adopted a different approach, and leaving my sabre in its scabbard, I thought of myself as a rider who, to win the prize in a race, goes as fast as possible by the shortest route towards the winning post without taking any notice of what is to right or left of him during his passage. Now, my winning post being the hillock occupied by the 14th, I resolved to get there without paying any attention to the Cossacks, whom I blotted out of my thoughts.
This system worked perfectly. Lisette, light as a swallow, and flying rather than galloping, rushed through space, leaping over the piled up bodies of men and horses, over ditches and the broken mountings of guns, as well as the half-extinguished bivouac fires. Thousands of Cossacks were scattered about the plain. The first ones to see me behaved like hunters who, having raised a hare, mark its presence by shouts of “Yours! Yours!” But none of them tried to stop me, firstly because I was going so fast, and also perhaps because each one thought I would be caught by his comrades who were further on. In this way I escaped from them all and arrived at the 14th without either I or my excellent mare having suffered a scratch.
I found the 14th formed in a square on top of the hillock; but the slope of the ground was so gentle that the enemy cavalry had been able to carry out a number of charges, which had been vigourously repelled, so that they were surrounded by heap of the dead bodies of horses and Russian Dragoons, which formed a sort of rampart, and now made the position almost inaccessible to cavalry; for even with the aid of our infantrymen, I had great difficulty in getting over this bloody and frightful defence work, but at last I was inside the square.
Since the death of Colonel Savary, killed during the crossing of the Ukra, the 14th had been commanded by a battalion commander; when I gave this officer the order which I carried, for him to leave his position and try to rejoin the army corps, he replied that the enemy artillery which had been firing at them for an hour had occasioned such heavy losses that the handful of soldiers which he had left would inevitably be exterminated if they went down onto the level ground; and anyway there was no time to prepare for the execution of this movement, since a Russian column, coming to attack, was now close to us. “I can see no way of saving the regiment,” said the battalion commander. “Go back to the Emperor and say good-bye to him from the 14th; and take back the Eagle which we can no longer defend.”
The Eagles of the infantry were very heavy, and their weight was increased by the long thick pole of oak on which they were mounted. I was bending forward and attempting to detach the Eagle from its pole, when one of the many bullets which the Russians were firing at us went through the back part of my hat, very close to my head. The shock was made worse by the fact that the hat was held on by a strong leather strap which went under my chin, and so offered more resistance to the blow. I was partially stunned by this, and found myself unable to move.
However the column of Russian infantry was now climbing the hillock; they were Grenadiers, whose headgear, garnished with metal, looked like mitres. These men, full of liquor, flung themselves on the feeble remnants of the 14th, who defended themselves bravely with their bayonets, and even when the square was broken, formed themselves into little groups and continued for a long time the unequal struggle. In my confused state, I was unable to react in any way; I was attacked by a drunken Russian soldier, who thrust his bayonet into my left arm, and then, aiming another blow at me, lost his balance and missing his mark, he slashed Lisette’s haunch.
The pain of this injury aroused her ferocious instincts, she grabbed the soldier with her teeth and tore away the greater part of his face,then, kicking and biting, she forced her way through the melée and taking the path by which we had come, she went off at the gallop in the direction of the Eylau cemetery while, thanks to the Hussar’s saddle in which I was seated, I remained on her back.