Soldier, special agent, prisoner, escapee the further adventures of Lejeune In this second volume of Lejeune’s memoirs he is despatched by Napoleon to Spain, to investigate and report on the state of French forces there and on the general progress of the war. While there, he finds himself running the gauntlet through a country where guerrilla bands and the entire populace seek his destruction. Eventually he is ambushed, captured and barely escapes execution before being shipped to England as a prisoner of war. A thrilling escape returns Lejeune to France in time to join Napoleon at Borodino and the disastrous retreat from Moscow. He returns once again to the army to take part in the final battles that led to the defeat of France. This is a beautifully crafted memoir that deserves its place as one of the great literary works of the age of Napoleon.
I galloped up to Murat to give him the Emperor’s instructions, and he left the skirmishers to make his dispositions for supporting General Sorbier. The Cossacks took his withdrawal for retreat or flight, and followed us. My horse, which was not so fleet as that of the King, for he was mounted on a beautiful fawn-coloured Arab, caught its feet in the drag-rope of a gun which was making its wheel of a quarter circle at a gallop. The animal, though hurt and shaken by the shock and fall, struggled up again at once without throwing me, and galloped furiously to where General Sorbier was standing in the centre of the terrible battery, now beginning to pour out volleys of grapeshot, shells, and balls on the enemy’s lines, which it enfiladed, every discharge telling.
The enemy’s cavalry made many useless efforts to destroy our line of guns. We remained masters of the fortified position, which the Russians had looked upon as impregnable, and I went to the Emperor to report on what had taken place.
The day was already far advanced. We had dearly bought the advantages we had gained, nor was there as yet anything to indicate that the struggle would not be renewed on the morrow. When I got back to the Emperor he had already been able to judge of the good results achieved by the artillery of his Guard, and he was still hesitating whether, as many amongst us wished, he should follow up this success with a grand charge from the whole of the brilliant cavalry of the Guard. Just at this moment a Russian lieutenant-general who had been taken prisoner was brought to the Emperor. After having talked to him very politely for a few minutes, the Emperor said to some one standing by, ‘Give me his sword.’ A Russian sword was at once brought, and the Emperor, taking it, graciously offered it to the Russian general with the words, ‘I return your sword.’ It so happened, however, that it was not the prisoner’s own sword, and, not understanding the honour the Emperor meant to do him, the Russian general refused to receive the weapon. Napoleon, astonished at this want of tact in a general, shrugged his shoulders, and turning to us said, loud enough for the General to hear him, ‘Take the fool away!’
The battle now seemed to be approaching its close. The noise of the firing was diminishing, and the sun was setting. The Viceroy had posted a large body of his troops on our left beyond the Kaluga stream, at the foot of the height on which was the big redoubt taken by our cavalry. The Prince was going about amongst his battalions, when the enemy, who had probably recognised him, ordered a considerable body of Cossacks to charge and try to carry him off. Fortunately the Prince noticed the masses of cavalry threatening our left, and in anticipation of their attack he at once formed his divisions in squares by regiments. The Viceroy had only just time to fling himself into the 84th Regiment, beside Colonel Pegot, and to order the Italian regiment to repulse the thousands of Cossacks advancing upon us with lowered spears, before the shock came. But the point-blank discharge from our infantry drove the mass of riders, always so clever at turning tail, back upon themselves. Our cavalry pursued them for a short distance, and then returned to the ranks. The night fell, and put an end to the exhausting struggle all along the lines of the rival hosts.
The tents of the Emperor and of Major-General Prince Berthier were pitched on the verge of the battle field, which in itself was doubtless a token of victory, but the enemy’s army was still within gunshot of us; the Russians, too, were rejoicing over a victory, and on our side the leaders were all making preparations for the resumption of the struggle the next day. The night was very dark, and gradually the fires on both sides, all too numerous, warned us what we might expect on the morrow.
Whilst waiting for the frugal repast which was to restore our exhausted forces, I jotted down notes of what I had seen during the day, and compared this battle with those of Wagram, Essling, Eylau, and Friedland. I was surprised that the Emperor had shown so little of the eager activity which had before so often ensured success. On the present occasion he had not mounted except to reach the battle field, and had remained seated below his Guard on a sloping mound, from which he could see everything. Several balls had passed over his head. Whenever I returned from the numerous errands on which I was sent, I found him still seated in the same attitude, following every movement with the aid of his pocket field-glass, and giving his orders with imperturbable composure. But we did not see him now, as so often before, galloping from point to point, and with his presence inspiring our troops wherever the struggle was prolonged and the issue seemed doubtful. We all agreed in wondering what had become of the eager, active commander of Marengo, Austerlitz, and elsewhere. We none of us knew that Napoleon was ill and suffering, quite unable to take a personal part in the great drama unfolded before his eyes, the sole aim of which was to add to his glory. In this terrible drama had been engaged Tartars from the confines of Asia, with the elite of the troops of some hundred European nations, for from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, men had flocked to fight with desperate courage for or against Napoleon. The blood of some 80,000 Russians and Frenchmen had been shed to consolidate or to overturn his power, and he looked on with an appearance of absolute sang-froid at the awful vicissitudes of the terrible tragedy. We were all anything but satisfied with the way in which our leader had behaved, and passed very severe strictures on his conduct. Supper interrupted our discussion, and after it we were soon all wrapped in heavy slumber, whilst the chief, whom we had been accusing so severely, was watching and studying how best to resume the conflict the next morning. Three hours before daybreak he sent for me and said, ‘Go and find the Viceroy, and make a reconnaissance with him of the Russian line opposite to him; then come and tell me what is going on.’ It was now September 8th.
A few minutes later I was riding stealthily along side by side with Prince Eugène at the base of the heights of Borodino, trying to find out something about the enemy’s intentions. The darkness of the night protected us, and we reached the entrenchments of Borodino, still occupied by the Russians. Seen from below, the fortifications stood out black against a sky of a less sombre hue, and we were able to ascertain that the weapons of the sentinels pacing to and fro were lances, not muskets with fixed bayonets. Having made quite sure on this point, we concluded that the enemy was in retreat, for otherwise the defence of the fortifications would not have been left to Cossacks, and I hastened back with this news to the Emperor. The reports brought in from other reconnaissances tallied with mine, and he ordered that the enemy should be pursued without loss of time. It was only now that we were able to feel quite sure that the victory was ours.